WASHINGTON – The fallout from Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny and exile to Belarus is set to broaden the agenda beyond Ukraine in talks at the upcoming annual NATO summit in July 11–12.
The meeting will take place in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, just 35 kilometers from the border of Prigozhin’s new home base, highlighting urgency to fortify the alliance’s eastern flank and increase defense spending.
It is still not clear how many members of Prigozhin’s mercenary army will accompany him to Belarus, but the thought of them setting up camp just a few hours away is rattling nerves in the Baltic countries of Lithuania and Latvia as well as Poland. All of them share a land border with Belarus.
Lithuania and Latvia quickly urged NATO members to bolster their defense, noting the speed with which Wagner forces had advanced on Moscow.
“Our countries’ borders are just hundreds of kilometers from that activity, so it could take them eight to 10 hours to suddenly appear somewhere in Belarus close to Lithuania,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said Tuesday.
Fortification efforts began immediately. On Monday, Germany announced it will permanently station a 4,000-strong army brigade in Lithuania, something Vilnius has demanded since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Until the Wagner uprising, Berlin was only willing to deploy its troops to Lithuania on a temporary basis.
On Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said it was too early to say what the Wagner presence in Belarus could mean for the alliance, but vowed that NATO would protect “every ally, every inch of NATO territory” against threats from “Moscow or Minsk.”
The Wagner fallout also bolsters the case for NATO to increase its defense spending. Earlier this month Stoltenberg reiterated the need for each alliance member to commit at least 2% of their GDP to defense, a long-standing NATO goal.
A NATO report released in March shows that while defense spending across the alliance increased by 2.2% from 2021-22, only seven of NATO’s 30 member states in 2022 met the 2% target – the United States, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the United Kingdom.
President Joe Biden said Wednesday he believed Putin had “absolutely” been weakened inside his country from his clash with Prigozhin but that it was “hard to tell” the extent to which Putin had been diminished.
As soon as the chaos unfolded in Russia, Biden said he directed his national security team to prepare for “a range of scenarios,” and convened a video call with NATO allies.
“We had to make sure we gave Putin no excuse to blame this on the West or to blame this on NATO,” Biden said Monday. “We made clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it. This was part of a struggle within the Russian system.”
However, it’s clear that in Vilnius Biden and NATO leaders will need to address questions of the broader threat posed by Russia and its ally Belarus.
“We’ve gone from thinking about Ukraine as a slightly isolated conflict to again thinking about NATO having this incredibly long, thousands of miles border, all down Finland and down Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania,” said Kristine Berzina, managing director for German Marshall Funds North and co-leader of GMF’s Russia Transatlantic Initiative.
“And Poland, because of Kaliningrad,” she told VOA, referring to the Russian exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania where Moscow has stationed thousands of troops.
“Is Russia unstable? What happens to the nuclear arsenal should Russia be unstable? What happens if you have someone who is more warmongering than Putin coming to power in Russia, and perhaps less predictable? These are questions for NATO itself to answer,” Berzina added.
Concern about Russian instability is decades old, said Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia who is now director at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
“Russia has nuclear weapons, and we don’t want those nuclear weapons to get into the hands of people irresponsible,” he told VOA.
McFaul argues that since the mutiny attempt by Wagner soldiers was sparked by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, leaders concerned with Russian instability would be well-served to find a diplomatic end sooner rather than later.
“Whether you’re President Biden, or Xi Jinping in China, I think this is the time to put more pressure on Mr. Putin to end his war in Ukraine,” he said. “Because the longer that war goes on, the more likely we are going to see future events of instability inside Russia.”
Administration officials have long underscored that the way to ending the conflict is by boosting Ukraine’s battle capabilities to strengthen Kyiv’s hand in the negotiation table.
The biggest impediment to reaching a diplomatic settlement for a “just and durable peace” is Putin’s conviction that he can outlast Ukraine and NATO, said Secretary of State Antony Blinken during an event at the Council of Foreign Affairs think tank Wednesday.
“The more we’re able to disabuse him of that notion, the more likely it is that at some point, he’ll come to the table,” Blinken said.
As NATO leaders meet in Vilnius to address the concerns surrounding Wagner, they must also decide on the kind of security guarantee to provide to Kyiv. On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy demanded clarity on his country’s future in the alliance during the summit.
“During the war we cannot become a member of NATO, but we must be confident that after the war we will be,” he said. “And this is exactly the signal we want to receive, that after the war Ukraine will be a member of NATO.”