Wagner Group Mercenaries Gather Near Polish Border

Wagner Group Mercenaries Gather Near Polish Border

Polish officials expressed alarm after they received reports that about 100 soldiers from the disgraced Wagner group had moved closer to the Belarusian city of Grodno near the Polish border.

In early July 2023, Poland began moving more than 1,000 troops to the east of the country amid rising concerns that the presence of Wagner fighters in Belarus could lead to increased tension on its border. 

“The situation is getting increasingly dangerous. Most likely they (the Wagner personnel) will be disguised as the Belarusian border guard and help illegal migrants get to the Polish territory (and) destabilize Poland,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said at a press conference in Gliwice, western Poland. “They will most likely try to enter Poland pretending to be illegal migrants, and this poses additional threats,” he added.

However, the opposition group Hajun project said there was no evidence of troop movements, and Morawiecki was manufacturing the crisis.

Wagner’s move to Belarus was part of a deal that ended the group’s mutiny attempt in June, when they took control of a Russian military headquarters, marched on Moscow, and threatened to tip Russia into civil war, President Vladimir Putin has said.

The Wagner Group Situation

If you live by the sword, you die by the sword. Putin learned this lesson the hard way in June 2023. Wagner Group mercenaries, whom Putin used like violent mob enforcers, nearly ended his 23-year-long stranglehold on political power.

In the early 2000s, future Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin lived a storybook life. He went from restaurant caterer in St. Petersburg to one of Putin’s most trusted political and personal confidants. 

By 2014, the financial windfall from his newfound connections enabled Prigozhin to leave the restaurant business and start the Wagner Group. The name is supposedly based on Richard Wagner, a 19th-century composer whose powerful music and strong belief in Aryan supremacy made him one of Adolf Hitler’s favorites.

As mentioned, at first, the Wagner Group was primarily an international enforcer. The mercenaries had close ties with many central African governments, most notably Mali, Niger, and the Central African Republic. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Wagner Group directly supported the Russian military. Western observers believed that, by the end of that year, over 50,000 Wagner Group fighters were in Ukraine. Many of these men were convicts who promised freedom in exchange for military service.

The Wagner Group had vast resources, but Prigozhin was officially a political outsider. To enhance his profile, he became an increasingly hands-on commander. Many inside the Kremlin felt that the Wagner Group had become Prigozhin’s private army, as opposed to Putin’s private army.

The increasingly outspoken Prigozhin sharply criticized the defense ministry as well as Russian oligarchs who, in his words, wanted to “steal everything that belongs to the people.” In other speeches, Prigozhin drew parallels between this “division in society” and the one preceding the 1917 Russian Revolution, warning of potential uprisings by “soldiers and their loved ones” against such injustice.

The defense ministry finally tried to reign in the Wagner Group in June 2023. In response, Prigozhin’s forces seized Rostov-on-Don and the headquarters of the Southern Military District therein. A northbound armored column of Wagner troops advanced through Voronezh Oblast towards Moscow. 

Russian warplanes were unable to penetrate anti-aircraft defenses or otherwise deter the column’s progress. As ground troops dug in around Moscow,  Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko brokered a settlement with Prigozhin, who agreed to end the rebellion.

The now-splintered Wagner Group remains in Africa, but most of its resources are now in Belarus, where they “train” the army. No one is sure what the Wagner Group is training the Belarusian army to do.

Mercenaries vs. Contractors

Other than armed rebellion against sovereign governments, foreign mercenaries and American private military contractors have many of the same duties, at least at first blush. But the difference in legal status is night and day.

Primarily, mercenaries and contractors both focus on security and training. However, the motivation is different. 

Mercenary groups broadly define “security” to include offensive operations. In their minds, the best defense is a good offense. In places like Ukraine, where the official military has a strong presence, mercenaries usually play second fiddle. But in places like Africa, which have little or no official military presence, mercenaries call their own shots during battle. They choose the targets and decide how to reach their objectives.

In contrast, American law sharply limits the activities of American private military contractors. Contractors always supplement official army operations. They never replace them. Furthermore, security means security. Contractors hold down the fort, so regular servicemembers can do their thing.

The same restrictions, or lack thereof, apply in training operations. Contractors stick to the lesson plan and give government security forces the tools they need to counter insurgencies. Mercenaries may teach whatever they want.

The legal differences also include accountability. Mercenaries answer to no one. Contractors answer to military commanders as well as judges in U.S. civil and criminal courts.

Injury Compensation Available

The sharp contrast between mercenaries and contractors extends to post-deployment matters. Injured mercenaries are on their own. The U.S. government takes care of its own in the form of the Defense Base Act

This 1941 law compensates private contractors who were injured in overseas war zones. Let’s break down these components individually.

“Compensation” is lost wage replacement and medical bill payment. Usually, injured contractors receive two-thirds of their average weekly wages for the duration of their temporary or permanent disabilities. The DBA insurance company is also legally required to pay reasonably necessary medical expenses.

A “contractor” is a non-employee working for the DoD, State Department, or any other government agency. The person could be a military tough guy or a Peace Corps volunteer. The “injury” could be a sudden trauma injury, like a gunshot wound, or a gradual occupational disease, like hearing loss.

An “overseas war zone” is any non-U.S. state with any official American military presence, whether or not the location is an active war zone.

For more specific information about DBA benefits, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.