Prigozhin is playing a high stakes game that could return him to the Kremlin’s top table – or bring about his destruction
24 July 2023 • 9:01pmWhen Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, claims the Wagner mercenaries camped in his country are desperate to attack Poland, he may sound like a buffoon. But we ought not treat it as an idle threat.
Across the world, the Wagner Group’s strategy has been to do the unexpected and the outrageous in order to achieve short-term objectives. In Africa, it has sent small units to plunder territories and effectively capture their governments. In Russia, it sent a force marching to Moscow in an abortive revolt. Is it so inconceivable that it could muster asmall force to cross the border into Poland?
Of course, the objective of such action would not be to conquer Poland – they simply do not have the numbers. But they can cause chaos and extend ongoing conflicts, as they do elsewhere in the world.
Relatively little has been heard from Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin since his mutiny against Vladimir Putin. The fact that he is not off digging salt in the Urals or resting six feet beneath the soil of Moscow underscores the weak position in which the president now finds himself.
It also opens the door to Prigozhin attempting to manoeuvre his way back into Russian politics. For Putin and his generals will know that any attack on Poland would bring a swift and brutal end to his regime. Nato could be dragged into the war on Kyiv’s side and, with overwhelming force and superior technology, would quickly trample the Russian army.
Putin also knows that the Wagner Group is still has military might, with ample motivation to take extreme measures. The mercenaries will be deeply disgruntled watching Ukrainian forces make rapid progress in Bakhmut, a city bought with Wagner blood. That battle took 10 months of grinding fighting; the incompetence of the regular Russian army could now see it handed back in about 10 weeks. Combined with Prigozhin’s believed eagerness to regain his own standing, tensions that led to the march on Moscow are ready to boil over again. This time, rather than turning east, Wagner could turn west.
Any assault on Poland would be doomed to fail. The Wagner forces in Belarus appear to number a few thousand, equipped with light arms and no tanks or heavy artillery. They would be no threat to the formidable Polish army, which has modernised and expanded in recent years with hundreds of tanks. That’s if it came to a scrap on the ground; without adequate air defence or fighter jets of their own, the Wagner soldiers would be sitting ducks for even the lightest air force.
But such facts won’t concern Prigozhin. He would be sending his men to slaughter, as he has done in Ukraine, for immediate personal gain. He’d likely watch with joy as alarm bells ring at Nato headquarters, where an Article 5 declaration would be under consideration. Even this prospect is an effective weapon: Putin will be eager to halt any such plans before the nightmare scenario becomes reality.
It’s a high stakes game, but that is all Prigozhin understands. As Putin’s grip on power fades, the splinter groups that have emerged from his presidency will only grow more reckless. The risk for the West is that there is a catastrophic miscommunication, causing Prigozhin to go for broke and cross into Poland.
The simplest way to avoid this is to ensure a Ukrainian victory sooner rather than later. Nato should arm Kyiv, then watch the jackals in Moscow devour themselves.