Ukrainian intelligence lured suspected Russian mercenaries to Belarus, journalists report
The arrival of 33 suspected Russian mercenaries from the “Wagner” private military company (PMC) in Belarus at the end of July was part of a special operation carried out by the Security Service of Ukraine (the SBU) and Ukraine's military intelligence service. However, the operation failed due to a high-level information leak. These reports surfaced in a Facebook post by Yuriy Butusov, the chief editor of the Ukrainian outlet Censor.net, who cited unnamed sources. Sources in the security services told a similar story to independent online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda.
Reports of 33 Russian citizens being arrested in Belarus emerged on July 29. The Belarusian authorities claimed that the detainees were mercenaries from the Wagner PMC, maintaining that they had come to Belarus to instigate mass riots on behalf of the opposition after the presidential elections. Russian diplomats in Belarus insisted that the Russian citizens were employees of a private military company, who were transiting through Belarus on their way to do contract work in another country.
On August 14, 32 of the 33 detainees were deported from Belarus to Russia (the 33rd suspected mercenary had a Belarusian passport, so was allowed to stay in the country).
Previously, Kyiv had demanded that Minsk extradite the detainees to Ukraine. According to media reports, several of them fought on behalf of the Russian-backed separatists in the war in Eastern Ukraine.
According to the journalists’ sources, the SBU and the Ukrainian Defense Ministry allegedly launched this operation over a year ago, with the aim of luring these Russian citizens — who had supposedly fought on behalf of the Russian-backed separatists in the war in the Ukrainian Donbas — back to Ukraine so they could be used during future prisoner exchanges with Russia.
SBU officers pretending to be a potential employer from Venezuela reached out to the fighters and offered them a job guarding oil assets. As Ukrainska Pravda and Censor.net’s sources explain, the original plan was for the mercenaries to fly from Minsk to Istanbul on July 25 — the plane was to make an emergency landing in Ukraine due to a passenger falling ill (this “passenger” was to be played by an SBU agent). The Russian citizens would then be arrested on Ukrainian soil.
According to Ukrainska Pravda and Censor.net, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was updated on the final phase of the operation during a meeting on July 24. The meeting was allegedly attended by several people, including Zelensky’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak, who asked to postpone the operation by several days: he said that arresting a group of Russian citizens would interfere with the latest ceasefire in the Donbas, which was planned for July 27. After that, Zelensky allegedly ordered intelligence officials to push the operation to July 30; at this point, the Russian mercenaries were sent to stay at a sanatorium outside of Minsk. They were arrested there on July 29. Ukrainska Pravda’s sources claim that by that time, reports about the operation had already reached Russia’s Federal Security Service (the FSB).
During another meeting on August 3, the head of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate, Vasyl Burba, told Zelensky that the operation had failed, claiming that someone had committed treason and demanding not only the launch of an investigation, but also that everyone who attended the previous meeting take a polygraph test. According to Ukrainska Pravda and Censor.net, Zelensky didn’t initiate an investigation — he fired Burba instead.
The fact that the Russian mercenaries’ trip to Belarus could have been organized by the SBU was previously reported by Komsomolskaya Pravda correspondent Alexander Kots on August 6. Citing a source in the Russian special services, the Komsomolskaya Pravda version of the story contains a key detail that also comes up in the reports from Butusov and Ukrainska Pravda: Kots wrote that the fighters’ tickets were originally booked for July 25, but then they were told that their flights had been changed to July 30, and checked themselves into the sanatorium.
At the same time, Komsomolskaya Pravda claims that the SBU tipped off the Belarusian special services about the suspected Russian mercenaries. Allegedly, the real aim of the provocation was to put strain on relations between Russia and Belarus, rather than to the arrest of the Wagner group mercenaries. Komsomolskaya Pravda also said that recruitment was carried out by SBU agents posing as employees of a Rosneft subsidiary. In response, Rosneft issued a special press release, emphasizing that its employees weren’t involved in the incident.
Translation by Eilish Hart