Belarus arrested 33 Russian mercenaries outside of Minsk today. Here’s what we know, so far.
In Belarus, law enforcement officers arrested 33 mercenaries from the Russian private military company (PMC) “Wagner,” the state-owned Belarusian news agency BelTA reported.
The Wagner group is a private military company (PMC) linked to billionaire Russian businessman Evgeny Prigozhin, who is known for his ties to the Kremlin. According to various reports, mercenaries from the Wagner PMC have fought on the side of the Russian-backed separatists in the Ukrainian Donbas, as well as on the side of government forces in Syria; reportedly, they are also active in a number of African countries, including Libya.
That said, the Russian government doesn’t acknowledge the Wagner PMC’s work — President Vladimir Putin said that “if they aren’t violating Russian law, they can push their business interests anywhere in the world.” Mercenary activity is banned in Russia and mercenaries can face between three and seven years in prison for taking part in hostilities.
Belarusian law enforcement agencies received information about 200 militants arriving in the country “to destabilize the situation during the election campaign,” the news agency said. The group arrived in Minsk on July 25, where they spent two days in a hotel before moving to sanatorium outside of the Belarusian capital. This is where the Belarusian State Security Committee (KGB) and officers from Minsk special police units (the OMON) arrested 32 of the suspected mercenaries on the night of July 29. The thirty-third fighter was arrested in southern Belarus. BelTA then released a list of the arrestees — all of whom are Russian citizens, — including their full names and dates of birth (the Belarusian news outlet TUT.by noted that several of these names also appeared on Wagner group lists that were published in the media). The head of the Belarusian KGB, Valery Vakulchik (Valeryy Vakulchyk), later confirmed that the arrested Russian citizens in questions are “members of the Wagner private military company.” The Russian Embassy in Minsk reported that the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s main consular department had informed them of the arrest of 32 Russian citizens. Footage of the arrests was broadcast on the state television channel Belarus 1.
The Russian business newspaper Kommersant gathered information on three of the 33 detainees.
- Andrey Petrovich Bakunovich, born December 30, 1977. The independent Belarusian TV channel Belsat has referred to Bakunovich as a Wagner group mercenary repeatedly. In 2018, Ukraine’s Security Service (the SBU) listed him among 11 Belarusians allegedly fighting on behalf of the Wagner PMC.
- Takhir Minigayanovich Bakhtigarayev, born April 4, 1980. According to Kommersant, a person with this full name and date of birth is mentioned in a 2018 article about the Wagner group by the Ukrainian online outlet PolitInfo. In the article, Bakhtigarayev is referred to as a driver-mechanic for the Wagner PMC’s fourth reconnaissance and assault company, under the callsign “Fartovy.” According to information available on the website of a judicial district in Perm, a person with this last name and initials was fined 1,000 rubles for shoplifting in 2014.
- Fyodor Mikhailovich Sergeyev, born May 17, 1987. Kommersant found a person with this same full name and birthdate on the Russian social networking site “Odnoklassniki.” His profile indicates that he lives in Astrakhan and served in the Russian Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops. He’s also a member of the following groups: “Donbass Volunteers,” “Weapons and Military Equipment,” and “Thank God we’re Cossacks!!! Andreyevsky Khutor!!!” (original spelling and punctuation preserved). His profile page shared a number of posts about the war in Ukraine’s Donbas. In 2018, Fyodor Sergeyev was sentenced to two years probation for the illegal possession and transportation of weapons. He was arrested by the FSB and pleaded guilty.
Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin recognized several of the arrestees as members of his battalion that fought on the side of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. “There are two or three fighters there from my battalion. Actually, if not dozens, then hundreds of people are working for the PMC and participating in military conflicts,” Prilepin told the online publication Ura.ru. Prilepin also expressed doubts that the mercenaries were in Minsk to destabilize the situation in Belarus. According to him, they were stopping over in Belarus on their way to other parts of the world. Similar claims also appeared on the Telegram channel WarGonzo, which is run by Russian war correspondent Semyon Pegov. According to Pegov, the mercenaries were using Belarus as transit point before shipping out to countries in Africa; the Belarusian government and security services allegedly knew about this. Open Media also reported that some of the suspects arrested in Minsk are from Russia’s Astrakhan Region, noting that their personal data appeared on lists published by the Ukrainian website “Myrotvorets.”
What exactly the mercenaries were planning to do in Belarus remains unknown. BelTA reported that each of the mercenaries had a piece of hand luggage and “three large, heavy, suitcases.” Management at the sanatorium where they were staying noticed that they wore military-style clothing and said that their behaviour was “uncharacteristic for Russian tourists”: they didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t seek out any entertainment, kept to themselves, and studied the sanatorium’s property, BelTA said. However, the government news agency didn’t specify whether or not these men were armed, what they were planning to do in Belarus, or where the remaining mercenaries could be (assuming there were actually 200 of them in the country). The Belarusian Investigative Committee is carrying out an inquiry in connection with the arrests, but whether or not the detainees are facing a criminal investigation remains unknown. The Belarusian authorities have yet to make an official comment.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) called an immediate meeting of the Security Council and called the arrest of the Russians from the Wagner PMC an “emergency.” “I’m looking at how the Russians are responding,” Lukashenko said. “They’re already making excuses, saying that we practically brought them here ourselves. Clearly they need to justify their dirty intentions somehow. Therefore, I would very much ask that in this situation, and [given] these facts, everything [be handled] extremely openly and honestly.” The Belarusian president also appealed to Russian media and Telegram channels not to, “as Putin would say, bullshit us.” “If they are guilty, we need to get out of this situation with dignity. If they aren’t guilty — good, we aren’t aiming to discredit a country close to us,” he added.
Several days ago, President Alexander Lukashenko hinted that a foreign PMC could instigate a “Maidan” in Belarus. “State Secretary [of the Belarusian Security Council, Andrey Ravkov (Andrey Raukou)] correctly said that now all kinds of wars begin with street protests, [there’s] demonstrations, and then Maidans. If there are none of our people on the maidan (we’re short on [participants]), they’ll be pulled in from the outside. These are professional soldiers, bandits, who are specially trained, mainly within the framework of PMCs around the world, and earn big money for provocations in various states,” Lukashenko said while visiting a military unit on July 24.
Belarus is set to hold presidential elections on August 9. Lukashenko’s main rivals won’t be allowed to run against him. Ahead of the elections, his most popular competitors were opposition blogger Sergey Tikhanovsky (Syarhey Tsikhanouski), former banker Viktor Babariko (Viktar Babaryka), and former diplomat Valery Tsepkalo (Valeryy Tsapkala). Tikhanovsky was arrested at the end of May in connection with an alleged case of violence against police. Babariko was arrested and placed in pretrial detention in June on fraud charges connected to his previous work as the head of “Belgazprombank.” Tsepkalo fled Belarus with his children in July, fearing criminal prosecution. In response, the Babariko and Tspekalo campaigns united behind presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya), who entered the race in place of her husband. Tikhanovskaya is campaigning on promises to call for new elections, which would include the participation of all the banned candidates. Her campaign rallies have drawn thousands of participants in cities across Belarus.
“Militants” have appeared in Belarus ahead of protests and elections in the past, TUT.by underscored. During the 2017 protests against the planned introduction of an unemployment tax (popularly known as the “parasite tax”), the Belarusian KGB accused more than 30 citizens of orchestrating mass riots with the participation of militants from Ukraine. Six months later, the corresponding criminal case was closed. In 2010, on the day of the presidential elections and the protests that followed, one of Lukashenko’s rival candidates, poet Vladimir Neklyayev (Uladzimir Nyaklyayew), was arrested in Minsk. State television channels reported that law enforcement had found weapons on a minibus belonging to his campaign, but this wasn’t reflected in his sentence (he was sentenced to two years in prison for organizing events that violated public order). Similarly, prior to the Belarusian presidential elections in 2006, the KGB claimed that opposition forces had attempted to seize power in Belarus, calling the accused “militants.”
Translation by Eilish Hart