MOSCOW - Relations between Russia and its erstwhile ally Belarus veered into uncharted territory after Belarusian security forces on Wednesday detained more than 30 suspected Russian mercenaries near the capital Minsk — allegedly for trying to disrupt Belarus’ Aug. 9 presidential elections.
The arrests came in the midst of a charged election season, one that has seen Belarus’s longtime President Alexander Lukashenko detain several would-be rivals only to see their wives step up as placeholder candidates.
In particular, the candidacy of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — whose husband, the political blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky now sits in jail on what she says are trumped up charges — has emerged as the opposition's lead candidate and an unexpected political star attracting large crowds.
The timing of the Russians’ detention prompted questions of whether the arrests were a pretext for canceling elections or declaring a national emergency.
On Thursday, the Belarusian election commission gathered remaining candidates for a meeting and announced that security measures at rallies and mass gatherings would be increased.
Belarus’ Investigative Committee also said the detained Russians and two would-be presidential candidates would face joint criminal charges — suggesting Belarusian authorities were trying to exploit the incident for political gain.
Lukashenko also appeared in a televised meeting with his Security Council, where he insisted on clarification about the Russians presence from Moscow.
“If they’re Russians, then we should reach out immediately to appropriate structures of the Russian Federation, so they explain what’s happening,” said Lukashenko.
The Belarusian leader added, “we don’t have any goal to smear a country with whom we’re close.”
In related moves, Belarus’ Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador in Minsk and both countries said they were working to strengthen border controls.
Neither the Kremlin nor Russia’s Foreign Ministry has commented on the incident.
An odd holiday
The arrests were first announced by the Belarusian state news agency Belsat, which claimed those arrested were part of a 200 strong paramilitary force that had infiltrated Belarus ahead of the vote.
Only the report claimed Belarus security services had discovered 32 of the Russians at a resort outside of Minsk — with the Russians standing out for both their camouflage clothes and un-holiday-like demeanor.
“They did not drink alcohol or visit entertainment facilities and kept to themselves to maintain a low profile,” said the TV report, while adding this was “atypical behavior for Russian tourists.”
Video showed the men being detained in their underwear with guns and ammunition scattered about.
Belarus’s KGB later issued a statement identifying the men as part of the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian mercenary force that journalists have traced to Kremlin proxy battles in east Ukraine, Syria, and portions of Africa.
Zahar Prilepin, a renowned Russian novelist who has taken up arms with pro-Russian rebels in fighting in east Ukraine, said in an interview with Russia’s URA.ru news service that he recognized some of the detained men as Wagner fighters.
The Wagner group is allegedly under the control of Evgeny Prigozhin — often referred to as “Putin’s Chef” for securing state food industry contracts in the armed forces and schools.
Despite years of mounting evidence, the Kremlin has always denied the paramilitary group’s existence.
End game theories
Though formally allies, relations between Moscow and Minsk have frayed in recent years over a long-stalled reunification effort to create a supra-state.
Observers say Lukashenko, in particular, has resisted the union out of fear of playing the lesser figure to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin has also expressed displeasure over Lukashenko’s hands-off approach to battling the novel coronavirus —voicing concerns that the virus could spread across the border.
The Belarusian leader — who announced on Tuesday that he had been infected but survived the virus without showing symptoms or stopping work — has dismissed fear of the pandemic as “mass psychosis.”
In a sign of just how strained relations have become, the Belarusian leader openly accused Russia of trying to foment a street revolution earlier this week.
It is a charge normally reserved for the United States.
Indeed, the primary debate surrounding the arrest episode centered on Lukashenko’s intentions and Moscow’s role.
Had Belarus really foiled a plot or was this a staged event ahead of the Aug. 9 vote?
Gleb Pavlovsky, a former political advisor to President Putin, said in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio that the size of the Russian force suggested more theater than threat.
“I don’t think that Moscow will angrily respond to it, because in these situations the actors are released at the end of the play,” said Pavlovsky.
“In other words, after the elections.”