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5th Mar 2024

EU summit avoids Wagner, attention switches to Belarus

  • Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg and EU Council president Charles Michel address the press on arrival at the EU summit on Thursday (Photo: European Council)
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Immediately prior to the EU summit, an EU official briefed the press that the recent military uprising in Russia would be 'the elephant in the room' for all discussions concerning Ukraine.

But Thursday (29 June), the first day of the two-day Brussels summit, indicated that EU leaders were not shying away from addressing internal issues within Russia and were actively contemplating potential solutions to mitigate risks for the EU in the event of political instability reoccurring in Russia — and the impact that could have on the EU.

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During Yevgeny Prigozhin's mutiny a week ago, Western countries approached the situation in Russia cautiously and refrained from making provocative statements. Politicians, such as EU Council president Charles Michel, repeated that they were "closely monitoring the situation". This cautious approach can be attributed to a desire to avoid being accused by the Kremlin of supporting the mutiny or contributing to instability in Russia.

It is true that the Kremlin has often blamed the West for its internal problems, even in situations where there is no direct evidence or basis for such accusations. This tendency to shift blame onto external factors is not unique to the Prigozhin mutiny but has been observed in various instances where the Russian government faces domestic challenges.

But the Kremlin has long needed no reason to blame Western countries for Russia's problems.

Vladimir Putin, in his address following the failed mutiny, indirectly implicated Ukraine and its "Western patrons" in supporting the Wagner group.

In contrast, Viktor Zolotov, the head of Rosgvardia (Russia's national guard service), directly accused Western countries of "instigating" Prigozhin's mutiny.

All this week, Russia's state media propagandists attempted to convey to the Russian population that the country had successfully passed a "maturity test" as a result of Wagner's rebellion, proving to the "opponents in the West" that it would not repeat the same fate as the Russian Empire and USSR.

Instability on EU border

Despite Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, emphasising during his speech to EU leaders at the start of the first day of the summit that Prigozhin's mutiny was an "internal Russian matter," its impact on the summit agenda was evident.

First of all, each EU leader who addressed the mutiny in their remarks highlighted the importance of continuing support for Ukraine in light of the instability in Russia. The vulnerability of the Russian political regime, which many Western leaders recognised as the primary consequence of the rebellion, reaffirmed concerns about the ongoing threat to Kyiv from Moscow.

Even if the current conflict reaches a ceasefire, the existence of successive military factions within Russia that could seize power presents a potential source of instability in all region. These factions have a big chance to represent a most radical part of the Russian military elite and might view a new invasion of Ukraine as a means to address domestic political challenges.

Secondly, political instability in Russia poses a threat not only to Ukraine but also to all its neighbouring countries. Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland all have a land border with Russia.

The prime minister of Latvia, Krišjānis Kariņš, emphasised that the EU "cannot control what is happening inside Russia, but we can control our actions externally," hinting at the need to strengthen defence efforts across Europe, particularly in countries with a physical border with Russia.

The PM of Estonia, Kaja Kallas, echoed this sentiment, noting that between 1999 and 2021, European defence investments have increased by nearly 20 percent, while Russia's expenditures have tripled and China's have increased six-fold during the same period.

The president of Lithuania, Gitanas Nausėda, did not extensively address EU defence matters. This may be because earlier this week, Germany pledged to permanently station a Bundeswehr brigade of approximately 4,000 personnel on Lithuanian territory.

Belarus 'more and more part of Russia'

Thirdly, several European leaders explicitly mentioned Belarus in their statements.

Alexander Lukashenko played a significant role in negotiating with Prigozhin to halt the Wagner columns on their way to Moscow. This incident highlights the extent to which the Belarusian regime is entangled in internal Russian affairs. Following the violent suppression of protests in 2020, Lukashenko is gradually transitioning to a factor influencing Russian domestic politics.

"We consider Belarus more and more as a part of Russia", stated Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte on arrival.

Given this context, it is possible there will be a fresh wave of support for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the democratic opposition in Belarus and Lukashenko's primary rival in the presidential election, who is currently residing in exile in Lithuania.

Fourthly, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen drew attention to the Wagner group's significant engagement in Africa.

If the Wagner group is indeed compelled to leave Russia, it is probable that Prigozhin will redirect his focus towards his projects in Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Syria, as he did prior to the conflict in Ukraine.

For the EU, this would entail increased instability in neighboring countries, particularly within the traditionally French sphere of influence.

Notably, French president Emmanuel Macron did not deliver a separate speech on the first day of the summit for the press.

Author bio

Mikhail Komin is editor at independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe, and currently a resident journalist at EUobserver.

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