Since Russia’s Wagner Group paramilitary forces moved to Belarus after their failed mutiny in July, that country’s three NATO neighbors – Poland, Lithuania and Latvia – have been building up their border defenses and preparing for a range of possible provocations.
In the case of Lithuania, authorities are planning for contingencies including infiltration of hostile migrants, cross-border shootings and a repetition of recent Belarusian helicopter flights that crossed into Polish airspace. Plans are also underway to close some border crossings.
Rustamas Liubajevas, the commander of Lithuania’s State Border Guard Service, assessed the current threat and described the measures taken to improve his service’s readiness in an interview Friday with VOA Eastern Europe Bureau Chief Myroslava Gongadze.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: Thank you very much, General, for this opportunity. So, what is the situation on the Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian border?
Rustamas Liubajevas, commander of the State Border Guard Service of Lithuania: I would probably say that the situation is stable, however very tense, because we can see that Belarus is actively participating in the aggression against Ukraine. And the security situation in our region is very tense also because of the presence of the Wagner Group in Belarus.
VOA: In response to Wagner presence in Belarus, Poland recently sent an additional 2,000 troops to the border. Lithuania is planning to do something as well in that regard.
Liubajevas: Absolutely right. We plan to increase border security in terms of deploying additional resources, human resources, technical equipment. The border is being now surveilled, while on high alert, because we still believe that there might be certain provocations at the border organized by [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko’s regime together with the Kremlin regime, of course, also with participation of Wagner persons. Well, we also will increase our staff number at the border with Belarus.
VOA: There was a question of possibly closing the border. What is the status of that?
Liubajevas: Apparently, the decision will be taken to close down two of six border crossing points. But we’re talking about those at the border with Belarus used for cars to cross the border. I think it’s very important to be in very close contact with the partners like Poland, Latvia, also Estonia. And the decision will be taken together with the countries of the region.
VOA: Does it mean that other countries would close their border crossing as well with Belarus?
Liubajevas: At least, this was discussed on the highest level between the countries. There was an agreement to have additional consultations in case of provocations. We also have a border with the Russian Federation, as you might know. So this will be further discussed, and apparently an appropriate decision will be taken.
VOA: How close is your cooperation with other NATO countries in this regard?
Liubajevas: I would say very good cooperation, everyday contacts, exchange of information, exchange of intelligence as well. That proved to be a very, very good tool. And next week or one week later, we are also planning to have a trilateral meeting with Poland and Latvia on the level of border guard services in order to discuss further cooperation in case of provocations or aggregation of the security situation at the border.
VOA: You mentioned provocation. What kind of provocation are you expecting?
Liubajevas: Well, we have identified a number of scenarios. For example, this might be a big group of migrants who might well act very aggressively and use weapons against border guards, infiltration of the smaller groups into Lithuania. Intentional border violations, like the one made just a couple of days ago at the border between Belarus and Poland, made by helicopter. So it might be persons, might be vehicles, it might be aircraft. So, also it might be shooting from the Belarusian territory at border guards on our side. We have identified courses of action for border guards — how they should act in that or another situation. We also plan to carry out, I would say, tactical exercises very soon together with our partners.
VOA: How are you seeing Wagner mercenaries right now – as a threat?
Liubajevas: I would not overestimate the risks. We have to take a really good note of their presence, because they are a destabilization factor in the region. However, I would not overestimate the capacities and capabilities of the Wagner Group. And while I would not really expect open military aggression against an EU and NATO country, however, the risk of death and provocations, incidents at the border remains very high.
VOA: For a couple of years, your country, Poland, Estonia, other countries bordering Russia and Belarus have been experiencing this border crisis or border tension. How has the life of your unit changed since that started? And how much effort are you putting into changing and training new forces?
Liubajevas: First of all, I have to say that the security system we have in our country proved to be very efficient, even taking into account those challenges of the last year starting from the pandemic, regular migration crisis, war in the neighborhood of Lithuania, and the security situation. We are much stronger than three and four years ago, from the technical perspective, because we have invested quite a lot of financial resources in order to strengthen our capacity and capabilities. And two or three years ago, we theoretically could speak about cooperation, and we had, well, some formal agreements, nice papers. But now we know that the system works. It works very good. And we are much stronger.
VOA: And the last question, about Russia’s full-scale invasion in Ukraine: How does it change the perspective and thinking in your country and other countries about the risks that Russia is posing to the region?
Liubajevas: Well, it has definitely changed, drastically, the mentality, changed the perception of the security situation by the public, as well as by the law enforcement community. From our perspective, speaking about border guards, we started to pay much more attention to the national security issues. In accordance with our national legislation, the State Border Guard Service became part of the national defense forces in case of military conflict, in case of aggression. So it’s a little bit challenging, but we really see now the high need of that work.