By Anthony Deutsch
THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Eastern European NATO countries on Tuesday warned that a move of Wagner’s Russian mercenary troops to Belarus would create greater regional instability, but NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance is ready to defend itself against any threat.
“If Wagner deploys its serial killers in Belarus, all neighbouring countries face even bigger danger of instability,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said after a meeting in The Hague with Stoltenberg and government leaders from six other NATO allies.
“This is really serious and very concerning, and we have to make very strong decisions. It requires a very, very tough answer of NATO,” Polish President Andrzej Duda added.
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin arrived in Belarus on Tuesday under a deal negotiated by President Alexander Lukashenko that ended the mercenaries’ mutiny in Russia on Saturday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wagner’s fighters would be offered the choice of relocating there.
NATO’s Stoltenberg said it was too early to say what this could mean for NATO allies, and stressed the increased defence of the alliance’s eastern flank in recent years.
“We have sent a clear message to Moscow and Minsk that NATO is there to protect every ally, every inch of NATO territory,” Stoltenberg said.
“We have already increased our military presence in the eastern part of the alliance and we will make further decisions to further strengthen our collective defence with more high-readiness forces and more capabilities at the upcoming summit.”
Stoltenberg said the mutiny had shown that Putin’s “illegal war” against Ukraine had deepened divisions in Russia.
“At the same time we must not underestimate Russia. So it’s even more important that we continue to provide Ukraine with our support.”
Poland’s Duda said he hoped the threat posed by Wagner forces would be on the agenda at a summit of all 31 NATO members in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 11-12.
(Reporting by Bart Meijer and Anthony Deutsch; editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)
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