Belarus started military exercises near its border with Poland and Lithuania on Monday, as tensions rise between the two NATO countries over Russia-linked Wagner mercenaries that moved to Belarus after a short rebellion in Russia.
Both Lithuania and Poland have increased border security since thousands of fighters from Wagner arrived in Belarus, an ally of Russia, under a deal that ended their armed mutiny earlier this summer and allowed them, along with their leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, to avoid criminal charges.
Polish and Lithuanian leaders have said that they are braced for provocations from both Moscow and Minsk in an area where both nations border Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, a heavily militarized area on the Baltic Sea with no land connection to Russia. The leaders said this after two Belarusian helicopters were accused of flying at low altitude briefly into Polish airspace, an allegation Belarus denies.
The Belarusian defense ministry stated that the drills are based on experiences from the "special military operation," which is the term Russia uses for its war against Ukraine. Belarus said that it includes the "use of drones as well as the close interaction of tank and motorised rifle units with units of other branches of the armed forces."
The war games took place in Belarus' Grodno region, near the Suwalki Gap, a stretch of land running approximately 6 miles along the Polish-Lithuanian border. The gap links the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia with the rest of NATO and separates Belarus from Kaliningrad.
Western military analysts worry that Russia may attempt to seize the gap to cut the three Baltic states off from Poland and other NATO countries, and see the gap as a potential flashpoint area in any fighting between Russia and NATO.
Belarus' military has admitted that it is actively using Russian mercenaries to train its troops. The military exercises began as more Wagner fighters reportedly arrived in the country. The mercenaries purportedly arrive in small groups daily.
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