Why Belarus' suddenly arrested 33 men it says are Russian mercenaries

  • Belarus arrested 33 men it says are mercenaries affiliated with Russian private security firm the Wagner Group.
  • But the amount of available information about Russian mercenaries using Minsk as a way station en route to destinations like Syria, Libya and Sudan raises questions about why the arrests happened now, writes Candace Rondeaux, a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War.
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Which dictator is more trustworthy, Russia's Vladimir Putin or Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus?

In the end, it doesn't really matter, because the governments of both Russia and Belarus are probably lying about the arrest last week in Minsk of 33 Russian men identified by Belarusian authorities as mercenaries affiliated with the so-called Wagner Group, a network of private military security contractors linked to US-sanctioned Kremlin insider Yevgeny Prigozhin.

For more than a week, speculation has run rife about the arrests and their possible connection to alleged Russian interference in Belarus' upcoming presidential election on August 9. The mystery surrounding the men detained by investigators in Minsk was only heightened Tuesday when Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, accused Putin of lying about what Lukashenko called a Kremlin plot to use Wagner Group mercenaries to overthrow his embattled government.

The accusation came amid unusually widespread demonstrations in Belarus in support of Lukashenko's rival in the presidential race, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a popular opposition activist. In a fiery speech to the Belarusian parliament, Lukashenko said he would hunt down the remainder of a 200-man contingent of Russian mercenaries that he claimed had slipped into the country covertly in support of a supposed Russian-backed plot to replace him with Tikhanovskaya.

Kremlin officials have denied any such plot exists. In a rare moment of semi-transparency, though, Russian officials acknowledged in a statement released by its embassy in Belarus that the detained men worked for a private security company, but said they simply were passing through Minsk. The Russian government continues to demand their release, while issuing vague threats to Belarus of "sad consequences."

To complicate matters even more, however, Ukrainian government officials have called for the extradition of 28 of the detainees — nine of whom are Ukrainian citizens — because of their alleged role in war crimes committed in Ukraine's embattled eastern region of Donbass.

So what gives? For nearly three decades, Lukashenko, a Soviet holdover who has held an iron grip on his country, has enjoyed a relatively close relationship with the Kremlin. While Putin has pressured Lukashenko to sign an economic integration agreement that would essentially result in the soft annexation of Belarus, Lukashenko has put up genuine resistance.

At the same time, Lukashenko has been careful to reaffirm Minsk's commitment to Moscow as a partner. There is no simple explanation for why a dictator like him, facing massive social unrest at home, would bait Putin.

A review I recently conducted with my colleagues at the Center on the Future of War at Arizona State University of leaked data from Evro Polis, a Prigozhin-linked company sanctioned by the US, as well as three other Russian firms reportedly linked to him — Mercury LLC, M Invest and Broker Expert — shines some light on the entire situation.

The data suggest that at least since early 2017, Minsk has served as a transit hub for Wagner Group-related enterprises. Earlier this month, the US Treasury Department sanctioned two of those companies, M Invest and Broker Expert, for their dealings in Sudan. The names of their employees appear in the data shared with us, and our research partners at C4ADS, by the Dossier Center, a London-based investigative organization founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

According to travel records, billing receipts and customs information contained in leaked email correspondence between employees of Evro Polis, Mercury LLC, M Invest and Broker Expert, four individuals bearing Belarusian passports traveled to and from Minsk at the expense of US-sanctioned companies linked to Prigozhin more than a dozen times between January 2017 and December 2018.

The leaked Evro Polis data also indicates that Evro Polis received email correspondence that included an attached customs declaration form signed by an official from Belarus' Ministry of Internal Affairs, also known as the MVD, for 400 Zarya-3 model flashbang grenades. The form is signed by Anatoliy V. Dubovets, the head of finance and logistics at the MVD, and it indicates that a Russian-based military munitions firm, AO FNPTS, was the shipment's sender.

Also known as the Federal Research and Production Center of the Scientific Research Institute for Applied Chemistry, this state-owned enterprise specializes in a range of pyrotechnics products sold by Russia's state-owned arms company, Rosoboronexport. It is unclear from the leaked customs declaration what the intended purpose was of the shipment. Zarya-3 flashbang grenades are non-lethal and can be used in both military and non-military contexts, such as crowd control.

According to a May 18, 2018, bill of lading, several frontloading forklifts made by OAO Amkodor, a Minsk-based joint stock holding company, were also shipped from Belarus to Sudan on behalf of St. Petersburg-based Broker Expert LLC. Formerly fully owned by the state during the Soviet era, OAO Amkodor appears to be a large joint stock holding company that specializes in agricultural and construction-related machinery and products. It has several branches across the former Soviet Union, including what looks to be its parent company, Amkodor-Onego, in the Karelia region of Russia.

A subsequent check of social media accounts linked to followers of an online fan club of the Wagner Group showed that six of the 33 Russian mercenaries detained in Minsk in late July are active followers of online communities dedicated to the soldier of fortune lifestyle. While following an online fan club does not make one a Russian mercenary, an evaluation of data connected to those six detained mercenaries shows close overlapping friendship ties with a number of individuals in the Wagner Group fan club who openly acknowledge having fought on contract in Ukraine and Syria.

Moreover, when officials with the Russian Embassy in Belarus acknowledged that the Russian men arrested in Minsk worked for a private security company, they said that the military contractors were simply transiting through Minsk on their way to Istanbul, where they were supposed to make onward connections to an undisclosed location. Southfront.org, a Russian site that tracks Russian military affairs and expeditionary forces, also published details about what it claimed were copies of airline ticket orders issued to the 33 men indicating they were bound for Turkey.

However, given that the US State Department's public diplomacy bureau, the Global Engagement Center, characterized Southfront in a recently released report as a purveyor of Russian disinformation, there are reasons to be wary of its reporting on the Belarus case.

Meanwhile, traditional media outlets, the Russian blogosphere and soldier of fortune fanboy channels on Telegram, Instagram, YouTube and the Russian social media site VKontakte, like Reverse Side of the Metal, have all been abuzz with claims that the Russian detainees are actually affiliated with PMC MAR, a St. Petersburg-based private military security contractor that specializes in support to Russian military missions abroad.

The PMC MAR website and its page on VKontakte were both apparently taken down recently, but an archived version of its company site indicates that the paramilitary contingent has fought in Donbass, the center of the ongoing tug of war between Moscow and Kyiv.

The evidence available to date showing Minsk as a transit point for Russian companies linked to Prigozhin and more broadly to Russia's shadowy private security industry may be circumstantial. But it certainly raises questions about why Lukashenko chose this particular moment to publicly confront his one-time ally, Putin, about what seems to have been an open secret.

In fact, the amount of openly available information is so overwhelming it would seem to suggest that Lukashenko's government should have known for years that Russian mercenaries had been using Minsk as a way station en route to destinations like Syria, Libya and Sudan.

Given Lukashenko's iron grip on his country, it would be very surprising — to say the least — if the authorities in Minsk, which has hosted negotiations between Russia and Ukraine over Donbass, were not keeping close tabs on the movements of men known for their affiliation with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. However all this ultimately plays out, it doesn't make Lukashenko look good.

Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.

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