They were a thorn in Ukraine’s side in Bakhmut, and now the Wagner group is set to become a headache for NATO as the bloodthirsty paramilitaries threaten its eastern flank.
Having redeployed to Belarus in the wake of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed coup, Putin’s allies are now bragging that the mercenaries are eager to invade Poland.
Warsaw’s army far outnumbers Wagner so threats to march on the Polish capital or a major military base have largely been dismissed, but a more-troubling notion is that they could attack a narrow strip of land known as the Suwalki Gap.
Even a small attack on the area – sandwiched between Poland, Lithuania, and Kaliningrad – could cause huge problems for NATO and potentially spiral into the Third World War.
Here, MailOnline tells you everything you need to know about the latest Wagner threat.
A fighter of private mercenary group Wagner stands guard in a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023
What is the Suwalki Gap?
The Suwalki Gap – sometimes called the Suwalki Corridor – is a 40-mile wide strip of territory along the Polish-Lithuanian border which is named for the largest city in the region.
Poland and Lithuania have fought for control of the region before, but today it is part of Poland and is the only land border between mainland Europe and the Baltic States.
Despite its strategic importance, the area is remote, with just one rail line and two major highways – one of which is single-lane – crossing through it.
It is largely made up of rolling hills which are covered by farmland, sparse woodland, and a few small villages.
That means the area is difficult to reach for any army that is not already based there, and equally difficult to defend, with little natural cover or choke-points.
Why would Russia attack it?
The Baltics have long been seen as NATO’s Achilles’ Heel – the region which it would be easiest for Putin to attack and most difficult for the alliance to defend.
Fears of a Baltic invasion have risen since the Ukraine war began, and if Putin were to attempt it then blocking the Suwalki Gap would likely be his first move.
Though thousands of NATO troops, including UK soldiers, are currently deployed to the Baltics, they are only intended as a ‘tripwire’ force.
Their role is to hold up any invading force until the main NATO army can arrive.
Russian success in the Baltics, therefore, depends on ensuring that army never arrives – or comes too late to make a difference.
Cutting the Suwalki Gap makes getting reinforcements from Poland and Germany – where NATO’s largest bases are – into the Baltics much more difficult.
Conversely, it makes it much easier for Russian reinforcements to move around by creating a land bridge between Belarus and Kaliningrad – Putin’s heavily militarised spit of land on the Baltic Sea.
Moscow knows this and, during the Zapad war games in 2021, is thought to have rehearsed closing the Suwalki Gap alongside Belarusian forces.
So crucial would the Suwalki Gap be to any Russian attack on the Baltics, that the sleepy countryside region has been dubbed ‘the most dangerous place on Earth’.
Belarusian soldiers of the Special Operations Forces (SOF) and mercenary fighters from private military company Wagner pose for a photo
Is Wagner a serious threat?
While the odds of a Wagner attack on the region are low, it is technically possible – and is the exact kind of threat that experts have been warning about for years.
Ukraine believes that around 5,000 Wagner fighters are currently stationed in Belarus, and have been largely stripped of their heavy weapons and tanks by Russia.
They are vastly outnumbered by Polish, Lithuanian and NATO forces, which number more than 150,000 men with tanks, heavy artillery, attack jets and warships.
Attacking and holding the Suwalki Gap would therefore be all-but impossible.
But as Ben Hodges, former commander of NATO in Europe, suggested all the way back in 2018, that would not necessarily be the aim.
Rather than attacking and occupying the gap, Lieutenant-General Hodges warned Russia could deploy ‘plausibly-deniable armed mercenaries’ such as Wagner to carry out ‘limited or temporary incursions.’
If Wagner were to begin skirmishing in the area – like the partisans fighting in Russia’s own Belgorod region – then it would make the border much more difficult to use.
Damage to the highways or railway line could have the same effect as closing the border altogether even if Wagner did not occupy any territory.
Second, in the event of skirmishes Poland would likely invoke Article 5 and demand all NATO allies respond, which other Eastern European states would almost certainly back.
But Western allies, particularly France and Germany, may be reluctant given the potential for retaliation by Russia and the fact that any Wagner force is likely to be small.
That risks undermining NATO unity which has already frayed between East and West over Ukraine, and would strengthen Russia’s position in Europe.
Third, an attack by Wagner would raise questions over how to respond.
Putin has admitted the Russian state used to fund the group but now claims to have cut them off, and would almost certainly deny responsibility for their actions in the future.
Though Wagner is based in Belarus, Lukashenko is not thought to have any influence over how or where the group operates and will probably distance himself as well.
NATO therefore risks looking like the aggressor if it responds by striking either Russia or Belarus, which both nations will almost certainly exploit for propaganda purposes.
A fighter from Russian Wagner mercenary group conducts training for Belarusian soldiers on a range near the town of Osipovichi, Belarus July 14, 2023
Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to base, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023
But hitting back at Wagner whilst avoiding either country will be difficult – especially if fighters operate as guerillas based on their territory.
Lastly, such skirmishes could allow Russia to use the gap as a bargaining chip.
If NATO chose to respond with force, Putin could threaten to escalate under the guise of protecting Kaliningrad – where he is thought to have stationed nuclear weapons.
But he could also offer to ‘mediate’ and end any Wagner incursion, provided NATO helped pressure Ukraine into signing a generous peace deal.
Could it trigger World War Three?
In a word: Yes.
Any armed incursion by Wagner into Poland or Lithuania – both of whom are NATO members – would almost certainly prompt a military response.
That might not involve attacking Russia or Belarus to begin with, but the situation could easily escalate to the point where direct fighting breaks out.
Joe Biden has previously described that scenario as ‘World War Three’.
UK troops are likely to be on the frontlines of that war as 800 of them are currently in Estonia – one of the three Baltic states – and dozens more are deployed in Poland.
While NATO would be expected to win that conflict, the devastation and death toll would likely be on a par with the bloodiest wars in history.
Particularly as both sides are armed with thousands of nuclear warheads.
Opening a second front against NATO while war is ongoing in Ukraine seems an unlikely move for Putin, but experts warn it cannot be disregarded.
As John R. Deni of the Atlantic Council think-tank warned last year: ‘Some thought it was illogical for Putin to order the full-scale invasion of Ukraine…
‘The West cannot assume that Russia won’t make a move against the Suwalki corridor just because it appears illogical.’
I am Rakesh Sharma, I associated with Elite News as an Editor, since 2021. I take care of all the news operations like content, budget, hiring and policy making.