Sharing the blame The CIA played a role in luring suspected Russian mercenaries to Belarus, CNN reports
The CIA was involved in the Ukrainian-led operation that resulted in the arrest of 33 suspected Russian mercenaries in Belarus last year, reported CNN on Wednesday, September 8. Citing Ukrainian intelligence officials, CNN said that American intelligence provided their Ukrainian counterparts with “U.S. cash, technical assistance, and advice.” However, U.S. officials deny playing a direct role in the operation, suggesting that the Ukrainian side may be attempting to “share or pass blame” for a sting gone wrong. In turn, the Kremlin’s spokesman and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) described CNN’s report as further confirmation of the involvement of foreign intelligence in the detention of the Russian nationals — something Russian authorities, including President Vladimir Putin, have claimed all along.
Ukrainian intelligence officials told CNN that the CIA helped Kyiv ready the operation that led to the arrest of 33 suspected Russian mercenaries from the Wagner private military company (PMC) in Belarus in late July 2020.
According to CNN’s sources, American intelligence provided the Ukrainian-led operation with money, technical assistance, and advice on how to bait the alleged mercenaries.
In turn, a high-level U.S. official denied these claims, saying this information is “false.” The senior official told CNN that the U.S. was aware of the operation, but not directly involved. “The official, who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly, suggested efforts to implicate U.S. agencies may be an attempt to share, or even pass, blame for what was a high-risk Ukrainian operation that went wrong,” CNN said.
“You probably recall that even then — when these events were still developing — we said that there were traces of foreign intelligence services. In this case, this is another direct confirmation that these traces aren’t so deeply hidden,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented on CNN’s report on Wednesday.
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) also issued an official statement:
“We fully confirm the information published by the television channel CNN, it is absolutely reliable, they very objectively showed the role of the CIA, so we consider this information reliable.
The Americans’ task was known. And at that moment they acted exclusively within the framework of this geopolitical task — the breakup of Russian-Belarusian relations.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin made similar claims in August 2020. At the time, he said that the detained Russian nationals were lured to Belarus as part of a “special operation by Ukrainian intelligence together with American agents.”
Belarusian officials arrested 33 Russian nationals on the outskirts of Minsk in late July 2020, identifying them as mercenaries from the Wagner PMC (a notorious private military company linked to oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin). Belarusian authorities accused the detainees of planning to instigate mass riots in the lead up to the country’s presidential election. In response, Russian diplomats said that the detainees were employees of a private security company, who were transiting through Minsk en route to do contract work in a third country.
Following the arrests, the Ukrainian authorities demanded the extradition of the Russian nationals to Kyiv, claiming that the purported Wagner mercenaries fought on behalf of the Russian-backed separatists in the war in Eastern Ukraine. Minsk ignored this request and in mid-August, 32 of the detainees were deported to Russia (the 33rd suspected mercenary had a Belarusian passport and thus stayed in the country).
In August 2020, the independent Ukrainian newspaper Ukrainska Pravda and the Ukrainian outlet Censor.net reported that the operation to arrest the Wagner mercenaries was planned by Ukraine’s Security Service (the SBU). Allegedly, the fighters were prematurely arrested in Belarus due to an information leak that came from within the Ukrainian president’s office. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration dismissed those reports as disinformation.
Translation by Eilish Hart