The lost boys Before the Belarusian presidential election, police in Minsk arrested a group of Russian mercenaries for supposedly plotting riots. ‘Meduza’ tried to find out why they were really there.
On July 29, the Belarusian authorities arrested 33 Russian nationals. Local officials say these men work for the “Wagner” private military company (PMC) and planned to incite riots ahead of the August 9 presidential election. What these 33 Russians were actually doing in Belarus, however, remains unclear. Minsk has hinted that the supposed mercenaries were part of a plot by Moscow to meddle in the election, while rumors have circulated in the Russian media that Ukrainian intelligence agents are responsible for the scandal. Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova spoke to multiple intelligence workers and the relatives of the Russian citizens now arrested in Belarus to find out what these men were really doing.
The health spa mercs
The “Belorusochka” is a health spa secluded outside Minsk, situated in a forest on the banks of the Drazdy Reservoir. It’s quiet there and so was the large group of Russian-speaking men who checked in on July 27. As many journalists would later report, these guests kept to themselves, abstained from various mud and mineral-water treatments, and avoided alcohol entirely.
On the group’s second night at the spa, in the middle of the night, Belarusian special forces officers arrived and kicked in their doors while most of the men were asleep. They arrested everyone they found. The next morning, the local press reported the capture of 33 “Wagner” PMC mercenaries come to Minsk to incite riots ahead of the presidential election.
Before the special forces showed up and stormed the Russians’ rooms, at least one member of the group stepped outside for a smoke and a breath of air. He would have been the 34th prisoner.
“When everything started, he just slipped into the forest and vanished,” marveled a Wagner veteran who spoke to Meduza about the one Russian who evaded capture in Belarus. Another source in Russia’s military intelligence described the same story to Meduza, saying the individual simply lucked out. Meduza was unable to identify or track down this apparent escape artist.
In fact, even more Wagner mercenaries may have gotten away. Five sources (including someone close to Wagner’s leadership and another person with knowledge of the investigation that prompted the raid) told Meduza that there may have been more than 33 men in the group at the Belorusochka. Another three mercenaries apparently evaded capture, some of those arrested were Belarusians who allegedly assisted the combatants, and the Belarusian police supposedly arrested two bonafide tourists by accident.
Russian diplomats have declined to discuss the number of Wagner staff in Minsk. “We’ve been notified about the arrest of exactly 33 Russian citizens,” an embassy spokesman in Minsk told Meduza.
“They were offered fat paychecks and they fell for it”
Two days after the arrests at the Belorusochka, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his Security Council and “expressed hopes” that the “arbitrarily arrested Russian nationals will be released.”
These wishes have not comforted Alexey Maslov, whose son is one of the Russian men now in custody in Belarus. Speaking to Meduza, he appears to be angrier with Moscow and than Minsk. “Is there anybody in the government, in all of Russia, who’s going to deal with this? Or are these kids just abandoned now? Are they just pieces of meat?” Maslov asked.
Maslov’s 31-year-old son, Sergey, joined the Wagner PMC in 2016 and fought in Syria, according to internal documents obtained by Novaya Gazeta, which reported that at least three of the men arrested with Maslov in Minsk are also Wagner mercenaries. Two of these people actually grew up as neighbors in Luhansk, a source with ties to Wagner told Meduza.
Like his father and his father’s father, Sergey Maslov previously served in Russia’s Border Guard. Alexey says his son bounced from job to job after leaving the armed forces. Money was always tight and it was hard to see how owning a home or raising a family would ever be possible. “And then [at ‘Wagner’] they offered some fat paycheck and they all fell for it!” says Sergey’s father.
Alexey Maslov says his son was the victim of Alexander Lukashenko’s political ambitions: “He decided to prove to everyone before the election that he depends on no one and fears nobody.”
Maslov’s anger is not reserved solely for the Belarusian authorities, however. He told Meduza that a representative from Russia’s embassy in Belarus telephoned him and urged him to use his own money to hire local lawyers in Minsk to defend his son. “Who among these [local attorneys] will go against Lukashenko for any amount of cash?” asks Maslov.
Alexey Maskalev, the spokesman for Russia’s embassy in Belarus, told Meduza that Moscow is working to get additional legal aid for its citizens arrested in Minsk. Currently, the men are being represented by public defenders. Maskalev also insists that the prisoners are being held in reasonable, humane conditions.
Alexey Maslov still worries, however, that his son is being mistreated in custody. He warns that Russian prisoners have been separated and scattered across different jail cells and locked up with local Belarusian inmates. They’ve already reportedly been denied access to the prison store where items like additional food and cleaning supplies are sold.
A source who says he’s known Gennady Fetisov (one of the jailed Russians) since childhood told Meduza that his friend “would never even consider the vile things the Belarusian media is writing.” Fetisov, says Meduza’s source, “is someone who lives to help those in need.”
Before he left for Belarus, Sergey Maslov apparently told his father what route his group was taking through Minsk. “He said they were headed for Venezuela. They were [flying] to Turkey, then Spain, then from Spain to Cuba, and then to Venezuela — to guard some oil infrastructure. Those were his words,” Alexey Maslov told Meduza. He initially offered to meet Meduza’s correspondent in person and discuss the trip in greater detail, but he later changed his mind and backed out.
Other sources told Meduza, however, that it would be virtually impossible for Russian mercenaries to travel the route described by Maslov.
The same day the Russian nationals were arrested in Belarus, war correspondent and WarGonzo Telegram channel author Semyon Pegov reported that a source in Russia’s intelligence community told him that the 33 mercenaries were only passing through Minsk en route to a third country. Still conducting international flights, the Wagner group supposedly used Belarus as a convenient transit hub. After 24 hours, Russian diplomats formally confirmed that the Russians arrested in Belarus were bound for Istanbul.
But the Wagner group has no defense contracts in Turkey, so journalists and bloggers spent the next week guessing about the mercenaries’ final destination. Some said it was Syria; others named Libya or Sudan. Sources told Meduza that the combatants were headed for the Central African Republic. On August 3, Russia’s ambassador in Minsk limited the conjecture to a single continent: South America. Two days later, someone who says he had agreed to travel with the mercenary group but dropped out at the last minute said the men were going to Venezuela to guard oil infrastructure.
Back on July 31, Meduza’s source in Russia’s Federal Security Service suggested the same version of events, claiming that the mercenaries were each paid $5,500 to protect something in Venezuela. According to the source, the men were supposed to have flown from Minsk to Istanbul and then to Cuba and finally to Caracas — the same route described by Sergey Maslov’s father, minus a layover in Spain.
Two other sources with knowledge of private military companies in Russia told Meduza that it would have been prohibitively expensive to drive a team to Belarus and then fly to Venezuela through Turkey and Iceland. No contractor out to make a profit would even consider it, they said.
Technically speaking, the route proposed by Alexey Maslov is possible. According to Flightradar24, there are infrequent flights from Spain to Cuba, where planes also depart for Caracas. Spain is part of the Schengen Area, however, which means the mercenaries would have needed visas to stay in the country — visas they didn’t have. Flying into Cuba would have presented difficulties, as well, a source familiar with the logistics of mercenary transport told Meduza: “The island is still under a cloud of sanctions and American border control is absolutely everywhere in the area.”
Another source with experience organizing such transit told Meduza that the Wagner mercenaries may have been sent through Belarus to economize on plane tickets (perhaps the booker even pocketed the savings). After all, Russia and Turkey resumed air traffic on August 1, but flights to Istanbul from Minsk are slightly cheaper than flights from Moscow. “The people responsible for these tasks have been fucking stealing from everything for a long time — from plane tickets and even from spending on meals at events,” said the source.
Belarusian officials say the mercenaries themselves don’t seem to know the full details of their itinerary. “Eleven planned to go to Venezuela, 15 were going to Turkey, two to Cuba, and one to Syria. Another one didn’t have any idea where he was flying,” reported Alexander Agafonov, the head investigator handling the case in Belarus.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source in Russia’s Foreign Ministry told Meduza that it’s entirely plausible these men could have been hired without being told what their final destination was. In a global economic downturn, many men with fighting experience would likely jump at the opportunity, however vague, to earn thousands of dollars so quickly, the source said.
A special op by Kyiv or Moscow?
Belarusian officials maintain that the Russian nationals never actually planned to go to Latin America. Their mission was in Minsk, said President Lukashenko, “and their orders were to wait.” Investigators in Belarus say the plane tickets to Istanbul were merely an alibi while in Minsk. After all, on the morning of their flight to Turkey, the group of Russians checked in at a health spa instead of the airport.
Meduza’s sources in Moscow were also unable to explain the group’s stay at Belorusochka spa. According to Alexey Maslov, the men were delayed at Russia’s border with Belarus and simply missed their flight.
A week after the men were arrested outside Minsk, even Russia’s intelligence community had to admit that the mercenaries weren’t flying anywhere. At this point, it leaked its version of events to two of Russia’s biggest tabloids. According to this narrative, Ukraine’s State Security Service lured the mercenaries to Minsk with the promise of a fat paycheck through a nonexistent contract in Venezuela. Over two days, this conspiracy theory appeared first in Moskovsky Komsomolets and then in Komsomolskaya Pravda.
The latter report directly cites a source in the Russian intelligence community, as well as private information and documents (from virtual numbers created to look like telephone lines in Syria and Venezuela to personnel data on individual mercenaries). The story published by Moskovsky Komsomolets cites an unnamed mercenary who says he backed out of the trip to Minsk at the last moment. “Those boys were screwed over,” he told the newspaper.
According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, it took only three Ukrainian intelligence agents to dupe the Wagner mercenaries. One supposedly posed as a Russian Army recruiter (operating as a “subtle psychologist” and giving the impression that he was “high-ranking in the Defense Ministry”) and the other two reportedly pretended to be “Rosneft executives.” The Ukrainian agents allegedly made contact using spoofed virtual telephone numbers and documents redirected from fake email addresses.
Rosneft later issued a press release confirming that the people named in Komsomolskaya Pravda’s report never worked for the company and that the contracts described by the tabloid are fake. “It’s evident that one of this provocation’s aims was to damage a core Russian company and indeed the entire Russian economy,” said Rosneft’s statement, without specifying who staged the incident.
Meduza’s sources nevertheless say many details of the story presented by Moskovsky Komsomolets and Komsomolskaya Pravda are simply implausible. For example, both tabloids reported that Ukrainian agents used a dummy corporation — the “MAR” PMC — to organize the trip to Minsk. Online media outlets associated with Evgeny Prigozhin (the catering tycoon who allegedly controls “Wagner”) were the first to circulate this information in a deliberate attempt to shift the public’s attention from the Russian mercenary group, say two sources with knowledge of Prigozhin’s business operations.
Every source who spoke to Meduza for this article said no Wagner veteran would have agreed to an extended mission with “MAR.” Two mercenaries who say they tried to take a job in Russia through “MAR” told Meduza that the group is “run by scammers.” Other sources said they’re unaware of a single successful assignment organized through “MAR.” Alexey Marushchenko, the founder of the “MAR” PMC, denies that his outfit was involved at all in what happened in Belarus. According to the SPARK-Interfax records database, the entity was dissolved back in 2018.
A source familiar with Wagner’s management told Meduza that the person responsible for recruiting the team that went to Minsk knows mercenary work but deals mainly with Prigozhin’s various political projects. Meduza’s source in the FSB, however, says intelligence officials investigated this individual and ruled out his involvement. The supposed recruiter in question also told Meduza that he played no role in sending anyone to Minsk.
Normally, mercenary recruitment makes waves in the industry, but the search for combatants to work “in Venezuela” went on in secret, multiple recruiters with ties to the Wagner group told Meduza. “I know the people who went [to Minsk] very well but, for some reason, I didn’t hear any rumors about any of this. Usually, I know when people are going into Libya, for example, when there’s a new rotation. But this story totally passed me by,” explained Meduza’s source, saying he’s concluded that the mercenaries who went to Minsk must have been recruited by someone they trusted absolutely. “Because they didn’t double-check any of it with [their friends],” he says, guessing that the recruiter could have been a Wagner reconnaissance and assault company commander.
The $5,000-monthly salary reported by Komsomolskaya Pravda and deployment to Venezuela also should have scared away most mercenaries. A source familiar with Russia’s military contractor market told Meduza that nobody pays so much for so little work. As Meduza reported last year, most of the Russian military specialists in Venezuela were paid no more than 150,000 rubles ($2,035) a month (which was similar to the typical salaries earned in Syria by Wagner mercenaries, according to an investigative report by RBC). Russian mercenaries, moreover, never had a very large presence in Venezuela.
Not one of Meduza’s sources familiar with Evgeny Prigozhin’s commercial interests could recall him ever pursuing political projects inside Belarus.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, on the other hand, is notoriously fond of ordering high-profile special operations against supposed “conspirators” and “terrorists” from abroad — often on the eve of elections and major protests. These police crackdowns allow him to exercise personal control during tense national situations, says the Belarusian press.
The Wagner mercenaries were arrested just two weeks before the end of Belarus’s presidential election, and Lukashenko immediately used the situation to intimate the opposition. Journalists discussed the possibility that he might declare an emergency and cancel the vote. In a speech days before the election, the president warned that soldiers of fortune from abroad planned to stage a “Maidan revolution” in Minsk and said another group of foreign combatants might try to cross into Belarus “from the south.”
On August 7, two days before the election ended, Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin agreed to “sort out” the situation with the mercenaries. The Russian president apparently sent him a five-page letter with information clarifying whom exactly the Belarusians had arrested.
On election day, Lukashenko said he no longer cared who sent the “Wagner” mercenaries to Belarus. All that mattered now, he said, was that they “didn’t start a fire here in downtown Minsk.” But neither did the president rule out that foreign intelligence workers may have sent the mercenary group to Belarus, and he noted that he would bear this in mind in future relations with Russia.
Abridged translation by Kevin Rothrock