As Belarus has ratcheted up its messaging about plans to offer refuge — and possibly work — to Wagner group mercenaries after a failed rebellion in Russia, Ukrainian forces say they are ready for any potential threat from their neighbor to the north.
In recent days, Ukrainian officials have tried to tamp down concerns while heralding their preparations, with President Volodymyr Zelensky nodding to plans for reinforcing the border in his overnight address into Saturday and top commanders emphasizing that no current threat had been found.
Mr. Zelensky indicated that Ukrainian intelligence was monitoring the situation closely, adding, “We very carefully analyze every fact and any prospects in all directions.” Ukraine’s top generals were “instructed to strengthen the northern direction — to guarantee peace,” he said.
This week, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the Kremlin-aligned autocratic leader of Belarus, invited members of the Wagner group who had participated in a rebellion against Russian forces to relocate to an “abandoned” military base in his country. New satellite imagery from Thursday and Friday, analyzed by The New York Times, shows that more than 250 tents, enough to house thousands of troops, have been erected in the past five days at an unused base.
The invitation has made many in Ukraine once again wary of Belarus and has drawn condemnation and warnings from NATO leaders about the potential threat on their doorstep from a group that has earned a reputation for ruthless violence.
Belarus was a key staging point in the months leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the northern border was major point of incursion before some Russian forces withdrew across it months later.
Russia continues to use Belarus as a training ground for its forces and to launch airstrikes on Ukraine. But there are no Russian offensive units in Belarus, and there has been little indication that Mr. Lukashenko would deploy Belarusian troops to Ukraine.
Lt. Gen. Serhiy Nayev, the commander of Ukraine’s joint forces, said in a Friday post on the messaging app Telegram that there was currently no direct threat of an offensive operation of ground forces from Belarus.
“However, if the level of threat rises, the buildup of forces and means, as well as other practical measures to boost the group’s defensive capabilities, are foreseen,” he said.
Mr. Lukashenko, in an address on Friday commemorating Belarus’s Independence Day and published by the state news agency Belta, said that he was open to the idea of Wagner mercenaries training Belarusian troops, but said that they had not yet arrived in the country.
“And if their instructors, as I already told them, come and pass on combat experience to us, we will accept this experience,” he said.
This past week, Mr. Lukashenko said that Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner group, had arrived in Belarus after the failed rebellion against Russian forces. But Mr. Prigozhin has not been heard from publicly in a week, and his whereabouts have not been independently confirmed.
In other news:
Two staff members were killed on Friday morning in a Russian strike on a school in the town of Serhiivka, in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, the local military administration said in a statement on Saturday. Four other people were injured. Photographs shared on Telegram showed a partly destroyed building.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of Spain arrived on Saturday in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, to meet with Mr. Zelensky and speak to Ukrainian lawmakers. Mr. Sanchez, who is beginning a six-month term as the European Union’s rotating president, delivered a speech to the Ukrainian Parliament to mark the occasion. “Europe is with you, and you are one with Europe,” he said.
Mr. Zelensky, speaking to Spanish journalists ahead of the visit, said the next six months would be a crucial time for talks about Ukrainian ascension to the bloc. Ukraine applied for E.U. membership in February 2022 and was granted candidate status that June.
Two children were injured on Saturday morning in Russian shelling in Ukraine’s southern city of Kherson, according to the head of the regional military administration. “A nine-year-old girl and a fifteen-year-old boy were wounded in the shelling,” Oleksandr Prokudin said in a post on Telegram. “They are being provided with medical assistance.”
Valerie Hopkins contributed reporting.