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Belarus is emerging as a critical new front in the war in Europe.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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August 15, 2023
semafor

Security

Security
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Jay Solomon
Jay Solomon

Welcome back to Semafor Security.

The war in Ukraine continues to test Europe’s borders. As I write in my main story this morning, the influx of Wagner Group mercenaries into Belarus — and the potential construction of an Iranian drone-production facility there — is spooking Kyiv and the neighboring Baltic states. A territorial corridor that links Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to other NATO states, known as the Suwalki Gap, sits astride Belarusian territory where Wagner Groups mercenaries have deployed. Is it now vulnerable to attack?

Further down, Karina Tsui looks at the West African regional bloc, known as ECOWAS, and asks what it can do about Niger’s coup. And I profile the Pentagon’s AI chief, Dr. Craig Martell, and explore the challenges he faces integrating machine learning into American military operations.

Let me know what you think of this newsletter, and please send tips to jsolomon@semafor.com.

Sitrep

The Black Sea. Russian forces boarded a civilian ship just beyond Turkish territorial waters, The New York Times found — a violation of international law, which stipulates that commercial vessels can still operate in the Black Sea in times of war, even after Moscow pulled out of a Black Sea grain agreement with Ukraine.

Donetsk. Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told The Guardian that Ukraine was the most “heavily mined country in the world,” with soldiers claiming to find at least five mines every square meter. A group of Nordic and Baltic countries have agreed to equip Kyiv with de-mining equipment, but Reznikov has been appealing for more. One expert believes that even with 10,000 mine cleaners, it would take a decade to decontaminate the country.

Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un ordered a drastic increase in weapons production, North Korean state media reported, saying that artillery shells for frontline units should be “fully prepared for coping with any war at any moment.” Kim has visited Pyongyang’s military factories twice in recent weeks, and his remarks come ahead of planned military drills between the U.S. and South Korea — what The Wall Street Journal says will be the largest drills yet.

— Karina

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Jay Solomon

Wagner and Iran are turning Belarus into a new front in Europe

WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

THE NEWS

Belarus is emerging as a critical new front in the war in Europe.

Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have all rushed thousands of troops to their borders over the past few weeks in response to Belarusian military exercises in the west of the country. Officials from NATO countries tell Semafor they are also closely monitoring the influx of Wagner mercenary forces into Belarus, following their failed June uprising in Russia, and their training of Belarusian security services. And they’re concerned about Minsk’s growing ties with Russian ally Iran.

NATO and the Baltic states are particularly worried about the security of the Suwalki Gap — a land corridor on Poland’s borders with Lithuania that divides Belarus from the Russian territory of Kaliningrad. The territory has been the subject of NATO’s focus for decades, but the war in Ukraine and Wagner’s growing presence in Belarus has raised the stakes. Any Russian or Russian-backed incursion could divide the three Baltic states from the rest of NATO.

NATO and Middle East governments are also tracking Belarus’s growing military partnership with Iran amid evidence the two countries are preparing to build a drone-production facility on Belarusian soil. Belarus’s defense minister met his Iranian counterpart in Tehran late last month and signed a cooperation agreement aimed at strengthening each other’s defenses. Ukrainian and Israeli intelligence believe this includes the development of a drone factory, which could drastically increase Russia’s ability to hit Ukraine with loitering munitions.

“There was contact between Iran and Belarus and a cooperation agreement on drones was signed, but the Belarusians deny it for now,” a senior Israeli official briefed on the Belarus intelligence told Semafor. “This is a very concerning development that demonstrates Iran’s determination to undermine European security.”

JAY’S VIEW

Belarus has played a central role in aiding Russia since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine last February. This has included allowing the Russian military to launch offensive operations from Belarusian soil and store arms, possibly including tactical nuclear weapons. But Minsk’s partnering with the Wagner Group and Tehran is significantly escalating the threat to Ukraine and NATO.

NATO officials estimate that 6,500 Wagner forces have moved to Belarus from Russia since June, with more potentially coming. Minsk says the Wagner mercenaries are helping to train security forces. But Polish and Ukrainian officials say some have also been deployed to Belarus’s borders, and they’re concerned that Wagner forces could begin staging sabotage operations against Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. All three countries are providing significant military support to Ukraine.

“The adversary may focus their activities on complicating the supply of military material and technical assistance to Ukraine from partner countries,” Lieutenant General Serhiy Nayev, commander of the Joint Forces of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, told Ukrainian radio on Monday.

The building of an Iranian drone production facility in Belarus would also significantly enhance Russia’s ability to hit Ukraine. Russia has been deploying Iranian-made kamikaze drones since last fall. Many of the drones, according to U.S. and NATO officials, were ferried from Iran to Russian forces over the Caspian Sea. And Russia has started building an Iranian drone production facility in the autonomous region of Tartarstan.

But a site in Belarus would allow the Kremlin to launch kamikaze drones from another front, and drastically increase its supply. Belarusian opposition groups have reported seeing Iranian engineers visiting the city of Gomel, which is near the Ukrainian border, alongside Russian intelligence officers in recent weeks.

And Belarus is receiving support from China as well. Beijing announced on Monday that Defense Minister Li Shangfu will visit Minsk this month to strengthen Belarusian-Chinese ties.

To read the whole story, click here.

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One Good Email

Oge Onubogu is the Director of the Africa Program at the Wilson Center.

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Stat

The latest amount of military aid the U.S. is sending to Ukraine, to meet its “critical security and defense needs” — which will include mine-clearing equipment and ammunition for HIMARS.

— Karina

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Advance/Retreat

⋉ ADVANCE: High tech. NATO member states have collectively committed to creating a $1.1 billion fund to invest in tech startup firms which the alliance views as leading by “safety, freedom, and human empowerment.”

AFP via Getty Images

RETREAT: High treason. Niger’s military junta wants to prosecute deposed President Mohamed Bazoum for “high treason” — which it says stems from his interactions with West African politicians and their international partners following the coup. If convicted, Bazoum could face the death penalty.

— Karina

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Person of Interest

Dr. Craig Martell, Pentagon’s Chief Digital and AI Officer

U.S. Department of Defense

Craig Martell spent a decade working to employ digital learning and artificial intelligence in Silicon Valley companies like Lyft, Dropbox, and LinkedIn. Now he’s in charge of doing the same at the Pentagon, and he admits it’s a scary prospect.

Martell recently was tapped to lead the Pentagon’s generative AI task force, called Task Force Lima, which will use machine learning to produce speech, text, and images for military operations. It’s also engaged in finding ways to combat America’s adversaries — whether it’s China or Russia — who are using the same tools. “Yeah, I’m scared to death. That’s my opinion,” Martell told the AFCEA’s TechNet conference in May. “Here’s my biggest fear about ChatGPT: It has been trained to express itself in a fluent manner. It speaks fluently and authoritatively. So, you believe it even when it’s wrong.”

Martell is among a growing number of technologists and Silicon Valley veterans who have embraced the Pentagon and national security work after decades in which there was a real divide. Martell believes the war in Ukraine, and China’s rise, have reawakened in the minds of high-tech executives the real threat posed by autocratic regimes. Startup companies like Anduril Technologies, SpaceX, and Palantir have all aggressively plunged into the defense space in recent years.

Among Martel’s main tasks, though, is to assure the American public that the Pentagon isn’t on the cusp of allowing machines to make decisions on life and death. The University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. has taken to the conference circuit and global television channels in recent months to make clear who controls America’s nuclear arsenal. “There’s always a responsible human who makes the decision,” he told Christiane Amanpour last week. “We don’t imagine a world where machines are making these decisions on their own.”

— Jay

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