26 January, 2023
Is Belarus Creating an Equivalent of Russia’s Wagner Group and Can It Become a Serious Threat for Ukraine?
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According to Valeriy Sakhashchyk, a defense and security representative of the leader of the Belarusian opposition in exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Lukashenka regime is currently forming its own private security military company which could act as an analogue of a Russian mercenary “Wagner Group” in Belarus. Sakhashchyk’s recent comment to Deutsche Welle that Belarusian Private security company GardServis has substantially increased its number of employees over the last few months and is currently training its personnel to participate in combat operations, has created a lot of media stir.
How is GardServis connected to Russia’s Wagner Group, and can it be used during Russia’s offensive against Ukraine?
The paramilitary Wagner Group was reportedly created in 2014 to facilitate the conduct of Russian military operations in the countries where the Kremlin did not want to emphasize the direct participation of the Russian armed forces. Former Russian army officer and a veteran of Russia’s Chechen Wars, Dmitri Utkin, was allegedly involved in initiating this Group, and it is currently headed by a Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. Participation of the Wagner mercenaries in the hostilities in Ukraine in 2014-2015 allowed Moscow to claim that "volunteers", not the Russian army units, were fighting on the Ukrainian territory. Before Russia’s full-fledged military invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Wagner Group was reported to have about 5000 fighters. In 2022, Wagner officially registered as a company and started recruiting large numbers due to Russia’s difficulties in mobilizing military reservists for its regular army. According to the UK Ministry of Defence, Wagner Group now commands nearly 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, and about 80% of them have been drawn from prisons. Wagner fighters played an important role in capturing Ukrainian town of Soledar and have been heavily involved in the battle around the city of Bakhmut.
The success of the Wagner Group suggests that the Kremlin could be interested in supporting the creation of a similar organization in its main ally in the region - Belarus. In summer 2022, independent media reported that mercenaries from the Wagner Group came to Minsk to train employees of a private security company GardServis. GardServis was founded in 2020 and became the first government-backed security force in Belarus with direct ties to the ruling regime. Under the decree of Lukashenka adopted in June 2020, GardServis got the right to own military weapons and provide security services in Belarus. GardServis has been mostly employing “proven” people from former law enforcement officers. During the recent months, the number of GardServis participants has been significantly increasing - the company expanded its personnel structure by employing additional officers, sergeants, and soldiers who served in the special operations forces and special units of the law enforcement agencies of Belarus. GardServis may currently have over 1000 fighters.
It is still early to comment on the purpose of this organization due to a high level of secrecy surrounding its internal processes, but the current developments indicate that Lukashenka might indeed be creating and training his own troop of mercenaries in Belarus backed by the Kremlin. If Russia decides to do an offensive of Ukraine from the territory of Belarus which will involve Belarusian troops, it is possible to assume that the fighters of a private military organization will serve as an official cover for this operation. The important question is how many human resources Lukashenka can potentially mobilize to form his mercenary organization and whether he will replicate the tactics of the Wagner Group and resort to recruiting Belarusian prisoners for a potential offensive in Ukraine.