What Were Russian Mercenaries Doing in Belarus?

The arrest of more than 30 fighters from Russia’s Wagner Group in Minsk raised government speculation about Russian interference ahead of next month’s election.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko holds a meeting
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, center, holds a meeting with members of the Security Council of Belarus at the Independence Palace on July 29. Nikolai Petrov/TASS/ via Getty Images

Authorities in Belarus announced on Wednesday that they had arrested 33 fighters from Russia’s quasi-private military contractor the Wagner Group just as President Aleksandr Lukashenko faces an unprecedented opposition challenge ahead of elections next month.

The arrests were first reported in the Belarusian state news agency Belta, which alleged that over 200 Russian-backed militants have been dispatched to the country to destabilize it ahead of the Aug. 9 vote. But many experts suspect the mercenaries were simply using Belarus as a convenient transit point on their way to Sudan, Syria, or Libya—all countries where they have been operating lately.

The publicized arrest appears to have been an attempt on the part of Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for over 25 years, to stoke fears of a Russian intervention in a bid to shore up support ahead of the election. The 65-year-old president faces a rare challenger on the campaign trail (after arresting and barring prior opposition candidates from running): Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a popular blogger who was arrested after announcing his own candidacy. Tikhanovskaya has been drawing significant crowds in smaller cities and towns long thought to be Lukashenko bastions.

She has little chance of winning what will be highly stage-managed elections meant to deliver Lukashenko—often described as Europe’s last dictator—his sixth consecutive term in office. But the groundswell of support for her campaign has underscored the precariousness of Lukashenko’s position as Belarusians are increasingly fed up with economic stagnation and the president’s apparent disregard for the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, Lukashenko announced that he had contracted and survived the virus himself.

Lukashenko has routinely used the specter of foreign interference—from both Russia and the West—to portray himself as the person best positioned to defend the country’s sovereignty, and invoking the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries inside the country would send an ominous signal to voters that the country could go the way of Ukraine if it repudiates him.

While the arrests may have offered Lukashenko the chance of a preelection stunt, it’s unclear where he can go from here without painting himself into a corner. Releasing the fighters without trial would undermine his claims and be a slap in the face to both Ukraine and the United States, which has sanctioned several Wagner entities for their foreign interference efforts. Charging them risks provoking Russia’s ire.

Lukashenko called a meeting of the country’s security council on Wednesday, describing the situation as an “emergency.” “I am looking at how the Russians are reacting. They are already trying to justify themselves, saying that we practically brought them here ourselves. It’s clear that they have to somehow justify their dirty intentions,” he said.

There seems little doubt that the men arrested are from the Wagner Group, a nebulous collection of Russian firms that offer military contractors for combat and destabilization activities in countries around the world. Sixteen of the 33 men were identified by the controversial Ukrainian website Myrotvorets. And Zakhar Prilepin, a Russian writer who served as deputy commander of a unit that fought on the side of separatists in eastern Ukraine, confirmed on social media that some of the men arrested in Minsk had served in his battalion.

“Based off their equipment and statements from other Russian private military contractors I have no doubt that the guys they caught were Russian private military contractors,” said Rob Lee, an expert on the Russian military and a Ph.D. student at King’s College London, noting that the men wore distinctive patches and checkered keffiyeh scarves that are consistent with the appearance of Wagner operatives.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean, contrary to the assertions of Belarusian state media, that Belarus was their ultimate destination. Another scenario, put forward by the popular Russian Telegram channel War Gonzo, is that Wagner fighters were using Belarus as a transit hub to other countries where they are known to operate, given the country’s open border with Russia and Moscow’s coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

“It does make quite a lot of sense,” said Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher with the Conflict Intelligence Team, which tracks Russian military involvement in Ukraine and Syria.

The Russian-language services of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty noted that in footage of the items seized from the men was a Sudanese banknote and what appears to be a phone card featuring an image of a Sudanese mosque. Wagner operatives are known to operate in Sudan, and earlier this month the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions on affiliates of the group for their role in collaborating with the ousted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to quash pro-democracy protests that broke out in late 2018.

Further dousing the idea that they were in Belarus on an operational assignment, the militants seem to have made little effort to blend in. According to Belarusian state media, the men arrived in Minsk on July 25 and checked into a hotel before transferring to a health spa outside of the capital.

“They weren’t inconspicuous based off their clothing and equipment, they were rolling around in a large group, there wasn’t much operational security, and they didn’t appear to be armed or equipped to do anything in Belarus,” Lee said.

If Wagner operatives were routinely transiting through Belarus, it’s unlikely that the country’s security services would have been unaware.

Belarus has long been a loyal vassal of Moscow, dependent on subsidized Russian energy in a relationship that came to be known as “oil for kisses.” But ties between Minsk and Moscow cooled following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, which prompted Lukashenko to rethink his dependence on Moscow and to pursue a thaw in relations with the West. In 2015, he freed the country’s remaining political prisoners, prompting the European Union and the United States to lift sanctions. Washington and Minsk have struck a number of diplomatic breakthroughs over the past 18 months, including an agreement to exchange ambassadors for the first time in over a decade.

While Russia has proved willing to intervene militarily in neighboring states suspected of getting too cozy with the West, first in Georgia in 2008 and later in Ukraine, analysts are skeptical that Moscow would seek to overthrow Lukashenko, particularly in the absence of a viable alternative who is palatable to the Kremlin. Belarus serves as an important buffer state between Russia’s western borders and NATO member states.

“If Lukashenko is cornered, with a broken society internally and the economy in such horrible shape, then he’s going to be quite an easy catch for [Vladimir] Putin. But I also don’t think they want to change him for exactly this reason,” said Yauheni Preiherman, the founder and director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has watched Lukashenko throw warming diplomatic ties with the West into question by brutally cracking down on the opposition ahead of the elections.

“Lukashenko is digging his diplomatic grave now with his own hands,” Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian political analyst, told Foreign Policy last week.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack