MOSCOW—The videos were certainly not what Russians have come to expect from their country’s secret warriors abroad: powerful men in unmarked uniforms imposing Russian influence on Syria, Ukraine, and Africa. These men were caught on camera by Belarusian security officers totally unprepared. Some were naked except for underwear, with documents, propaganda leaflets, and condoms strewn around their hotel rooms. Others wore vaguely marked uniforms. All 33 of them were military-age Russians hunkered down just outside Minsk a few days before Belarus’ presidential elections.
Belarusian state news agencies reported the soldiers served as Russian security contractors with Wagner, a Russian private military group close to the government. They were in the country for “destabilization” purposes before the elections, Belarusian officials said. Moscow denied any military involvement in Belarus, and some believe the mercenaries were simply using the country as a staging post on their way to or from their latest assignment.
By arresting the Wagner soldiers, Belarus’ embattled president Alexander Lukashenko is likely to be making many enemies in Russia. The Belarusian Security Council accused the arrested Wagner soldiers of preparing “a terrorist attack,” the Russian Interfax news agency reported Thursday.
The arrest and subsequent broadcast of the footage, which was aired by a Belarusian state channel, Agency of Television News, was all the more confusing as Belarus and Russia have been allies in an arrangement called the Union State for decades.
Some of the men were shown in their underwear with hands twisted behind their backs. They had tattoos on their arms, and one uniform patch read: “Our business is death and the business is good.” The state media report said there were more than 200 such soldiers plotting to upset the presidential elections next month.
The Russian private security contractor, Wagner, has reportedly been sending combatants to eastern Ukraine, Syria, and African countries, including Libya, on deadly secret missions that give the Kremlin plausible deniability. When the Belarusian state media published the names of the 33 arrested soldiers, 17 of them matched up to a Ukrainian list of “war criminals” who fought on the Russian-backed side in the Ukraine war. Belarusian weekly newspaper Nasha Niva reported that one of the mercenaries, Andrey Bakunovich, was a commander of Wagner’s group of snipers.
The Belarus-1 channel quoted a source in the Belarusian intelligence agency, still called the KGB, as saying that several of the arrested private soldiers were Russian citizens who tried to avoid punishment by demonstrating their paperwork confirming they were serving in various Russian military forces.
A well-known Russian nationalist novelist, Zakhar Prilepin, who fought in Ukraine, also said he recognized several of the arrested soldiers. “Hundreds of these people work in the private military forces and take part in various conflicts,” Prilepin told a nationalist website, Russian Spring. The soldiers were merely using Belarus for transit on the way to foreign missions, he said. “It is going to be weird if now the Union State will start some political hysterics because of this story.”
But later on Wednesday, Russia’s Federal Security Service, Russia’s successor to the KGB, seemed to accuse Prilepin of talking too much. “I am surprised that some of our idiots confirmed that the arrested men are soldiers of our private military forces,” a retired FSB general-major, Alexander Mikhailov, told reporters.
The private forces known as Wagner are financed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close friend Yevgeny Prigozhin, who owns catering companies and is known as “Putin’s chef.” “Whenever Putin needs to solve an issue abroad, his personal chef and close ally Prigozhin sends his soldiers,” Sergey Parkhomenko, a political commentator, told The Daily Beast. “Prigozhin’s corporation feeds the Kremlin and fights its wars.”
Longtime Belarus watchers, familiar with the almost three-decades-long rule of Lukashenko, suggested the arrests were a well-staged “performance” by Lukashenko, to perhaps win support from domestic opponents to Russia before the election on Aug. 9. For nearly 30 years, Lukashenko claimed up to 80 percent of public support, but his popularity has recently faded, along with his loyalty to the Kremlin, to Moscow’s frustration.
The macho leader, who is known for mocking women—and, recently, those who succumb to coronavirus—as weaklings, is now challenged by three liberal, pro-Western women in the election. For weeks, thousands of people have been protesting in Belarus, demanding to end Lukashenko’s dictatorship; his approval rating has melted down to 24 percent, according to some polls.
Lukashenko may be losing favor in the Kremlin, but in Putin’s eyes, there is no doubt he is a better prospect than any of the liberal pro-Western female candidates.
Lukashenko’s longtime rival, ex-presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, is convinced that Lukashenko and Putin had both been aware of the plans to arrest the Wagner mercenaries ahead of time.
“Putin gives Lukashenko the license to stay in power and helps him with this Wagner scandal, to pretend the threat is too serious to continue the election race,” Sannikov told The Daily Beast. “Putin is making a mistake, Lukashenko is a nutcase.”
At the meeting with the head of Belarusian KGB, Lukashenko commented on the arrests of Russian soldiers: “I’m looking at the reaction of the Russians. They are already making excuses, saying that we brought them here ourselves. Clearly, they try to, somehow, to justify their dirty intentions.”
Whether he was in on the plan to bring the soldiers to Belarus or not, Lukashenko is certainly trying to capitalize on the apparent Russian meddling. He could even try to postpone the election or cancel it altogether. “You and I should be worried about destabilization of the situation in our country most of all,” he said after the arrests. “The issue of the presidential election is secondary.”