Lithuania will temporarily restrict two of the country’s six border crossings with Belarus due to “geopolitical circumstances,” according to the government, and as regional fears rise about the presence of thousands of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries on Belarusian territory.
Belarus, Russia’s staunchest ally, reacted quickly to the announcement, criticizing Lithuania’s “far-fetched” plan to deactivate two border checks.
“This decision is one of the preventive measures to contain threats to national security and possible provocations at the border,” Lithuania’s Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said.
Bilotaite did not spell out the threats in the reasoning for closing the two rural border crossings from Friday, which were not used by commercial vehicles.
Over recent few weeks, Lithuania has discouraged its citizens from travelling to Belarus, even setting up signs at the borders saying: “Do not risk your safety – do not travel to Belarus. You may fail to come back”.
Lithuania has also cited the security risk posed by the Wagner mercenary group, which has taken refuge in Belarus since their failed mutiny against Russia’s military leadership in June.
Lithuania, which shares a nearly 680-kilometre (422-mile) border with Belarus, declared its independence from the Soviet Union 33 years ago.
A democracy and a member of NATO and the European Union, Lithuania has been a strong supporter of Ukraine in its war against Russia and a place of refuge in recent years for many who have fled an authoritarian crackdown in neighbouring Belarus and increased repression in Russia
The commander of Lithuania’s border guard agency, Rustamas Liubajevas, estimated there could be up to 4,500 Wagner fighters in Belarus, with some stationed close to the Lithuanian and Polish borders.
Wagner’s presence in Belarus has sparked alarm among Minsk’s western and northern neighbours, including Poland and Latvia.
Poland has said it will bolster its eastern border with 4,000 troops supporting the national border agency and another 6,000 in reserve. Latvia has also increased its security presence on its borders with Belarus.
Bilotaite said that Lithuania and Poland are also discussing the possibility of completely closing their borders with Belarus. Talks on the subject will take place in Warsaw at the end of the month, she said, according to the Baltic News Service.
Authorities in Belarus chided the Lithuanian decision on Wednesday.
“Lithuania, by taking such decisions, purposefully and deliberately creates artificial barriers on the border to serve its political ambitions,” Belarus’s border force said on social media.
It said the decision would cause traffic queues and lead to long waits at the border, calling the move an “unfriendly step” based on “far-fetched reasons”.