As Belarus launches terrorism case against suspected Russian mercenaries, Moscow insists they were in Minsk on layover
Terrorism and mass riots
The Belarusian authorities have launched a criminal case for organizing terrorist acts against the suspected mercenaries from the Russian private military company (PMC) “Wagner,” who were arrested outside of Minsk on Wednesday, July 29, said the State Secretary of the Belarusian Security Council, Andrey Ravkov (Andrey Raukou).
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.
Belarusian law enforcement officers arrested 33 suspected Wagner group mercenaries during the night of July 29. While 32 of them were arrested at a sanatorium outside of Minsk, the thirty-third mercenary was found in southern Belarus, the Belarusian state news agency BelTA reported. All of the detainees are Russian citizens.
That said, the Russian government doesn’t acknowledge the Wagner PMC’s work — in the past, President Vladimir Putin has 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. On July 30, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that “In Russia, legally […] there is no such thing as a PMC.”
Ravkov said that in addition to the 33 detained mercenaries, there could be as many as 200 combatants from the Wagner PMC in Belarus. “33 arrested, up to 200 located within [Belarusian] territory, according to operational information,” Ravkov said during a Radio Svaboda (RFE/RL’s Belarusian service) live stream, adding that these individuals are now wanted.
Belarusian presidential candidate Andrey Dmitriev (Andrey Dzmitryeu) later said that according to Ravkov, there were two more groups of combatants planning provocations in Belarus, in addition to the Wagner group mercenaries. Allegedly, the two groups were formed outside of the cities of Pskov and Nevel in Western Russia (Nevel is located near the border with Belarus and Pskov is near the border with Estonia).
The Belarusian Investigative Committee’s press service stated that the 33 Russian citizens were arrested in connection with a criminal investigation on orchestrating mass riots. Suspects in the case include jailed opposition blogger Sergey Tikhanovsky (Syarhey Tsikhanouski), as well as Belarusian opposition politician Mikola Statkevich, who ran for president in 2010.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya) is currently running for president of Belarus — she entered the race in place of her husband following his arrest.
Minsk, Moscow, and Kyiv weigh in
Ambassadors from both Ukraine and Russia were summoned to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry in Minsk on the morning of Thursday, July 30.
During his meeting with diplomats from the Ukrainian Embassy in Minsk, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey (Uladzimir Makey) requested that Kyiv launch an inquiry into the arrested Russian mercenaries for possible involvement in committing crimes on Ukrainian territory.
Ukraine's Security Service (the SBU) is planning to seek the extradition of some of the Russian mercenaries to Ukraine, its press service told BBC News Ukraine. According to the SBU, combatants from the Wagner PMC have been actively involved in the ongoing war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. “All of these individuals, like anyone who participated in the seizure of Ukrainian territory and other war crimes, must be brought to justice and punished in accordance with Ukrainian law,” the SBU underscored.
After the Belarusian state news agency BelTA released a list of the arrested Russian mercenaries, Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin told the online publication Ura.ru that he recognized several of them as members of his battalion that fought on the side of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s Ambassador to Belarus, Dmitry Mezentsev, maintains that the arrested Russian citizens were transiting through Belarus and were forced to check into the sanatorium after missing their flight out of Minsk. Mezentsev added that according to the Russian Embassy’s preliminary information, the men could be employees of a private security company, who were travelling for work on a contract outside of Belarus. Mezentsev also said that he sent a request to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, demanding that the detained Russians be allowed access to consular services.
What Peskov had to say
Earlier in the day on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Moscow only has “incomplete” information about the arrests.“We know that 33 Russian citizens were arrested in Belarus yesterday and 200 are still wanted. There isn’t any information about any illegal actions [on behalf of] the Russians, which could be the reason for the arrests, we don’t know anything about it,” he said.
“Russians and Belarusians travel [back and forth] freely. There are a huge number of Belarusian men in the Russian Federation, including ones in similar clothing, that behave uncharacteristically, not drinking alcohol, and so on […] That doesn’t mean that they are doing something illegal,” he continued, referring to the Belarusian media’s claims about the mercenaries’ behavior in Belarus.
Peskov also underscored that the Kremlin recognizes the detainees Russian citizens, despite Kyiv’s claims that some of them possess Ukrainian citizenship. “We don’t recognize their Ukrainian citizenship. They are citizens of Russia,” Peskov told a correspondent from the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN.
Upcoming presidential elections
Belarus is set to hold presidential elections on August 9. Following the arrests, Belarusian law enforcement claimed that the suspected Russian mercenaries had come to Minsk “to destabilize the country ahead of the elections.” In response, President Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) called an immediate meeting of the country’s Security Council and appealed to Russian media and Telegram channels not to “as Putin would say, bullshit us.”
All of Lukashenko’s main rivals have been banned from running against him, which has prompted protests across the country in the lead up to the presidential vote. On July 24, Lukashenko hinted that militants from a foreign PMC could attempt to instigate street protests in Belarus (he used the term “Maidan,” referring to the 2014 Euromaidan protests that overthrew the government and ousted then-president Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine).
The Belarusian news outlet TUT.by pointed out that alleged “militants” have appeared in Belarus ahead of protests and elections on multiple occasions in the past.