Belarus Says Russians Plotted Attacks; Kremlin Rolls Eyes
Lukeshenko rounds up Russian mercs en rotue to Libya
Belarusian authorities on Thursday accused more than 30 detained Russians of plotting terror attacks amid a presidential election campaign, allegations that Russian officials angrily rejected.
Belarus was being used as a transport hub by Wagner because Russian airports are closed to foreign travel, the Belarus KGB was appraised of it. The arrest of the 32 Wagnerites and publication of their identities is a very hostile move on Lukashenko's part.
— ANATꙮLY KARLIN 🤔 (@akarlin88) July 29, 2020
The grave accusations mark an unprecedented spike in tensions between Russia and Belarus, which are neighbors and traditionally allies. Independent observers and opposition supporters in Belarus have dismissed the alleged terror plot as a campaign stunt by President Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader who is seeking a sixth term in next month’s election.
The Belarusian State Security Committee, still known by its Soviet-era name KGB, said it detained 32 people from private Russian military firm Wagner early Wednesday at a sanitarium outside the capital of Minsk. Another person was detained in the country’s south.
Security Council Secretary Andrei Ravkov said Thursday that the Russians are facing a criminal probe on charges of plotting terror attacks in Belarus. He claimed that Belarusian authorities were searching for another 200 Russian “militants” believed to be in the ex-Soviet nation.
The Kremlin responded by urging Belarus to explain its action and to fully respect the detainees’ rights.
“There is no information about any wrongdoing of the Russians that may have caused the detention.,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. He shrugged off the allegations of the Russians’ involvement in efforts to destabilize Belarus as “nothing but innuendo.”
After being summoned by the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, Russian Ambassador Dmitry Mezentsev also dismissed the accusations as unfounded. He said the Russians were en route to an unspecified country and checked into the sanitarium near Minsk after they missed a connecting flight at the capital’s airport.
Mezentsev demanded immediate consular access to the detainees and urged Belarusian authorities to show their evidence against the Russians.
The Wagner company is linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who was indicted in the United States for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The firm has allegedly deployed hundreds of military contractors to eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
Many observers have pointed out that Belarus long has provided a transit corridor for sensitive Russian operations abroad.
Lukashenko is campaigning to remain in office amid an upsurge in opposition protests fueled by public fatigue with his iron-fisted rule and a painful economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Some observers see the detention of the Russians as an attempt by the president to mobilize public support in the Aug. 9 election.
“Amid a sharp drop in his popularity, Lukashenko has to turn to theatrical gestures to scare everyone and to try to stem the wave of protests,” Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political analyst based in Minsk, said.
Throughout his 26-year rule, Lukashenko has relied on cheap Russian energy and loans to keep his nation’s Soviet-style economy afloat. Belarus and Russia have a union deal envisaging close political, economic and military ties, but Moscow has recently cut some of the subsidies, arguing that Belarus must accept closer integration to receive energy resources at a discount.
The Belarusian leader has bristled at Russian demands and accused the Kremlin of harboring plans to deprive Belarus of its post-Soviet independence.
“The new scandals help remind the Kremlin that it needs to pay for loyalty,” Klaskovsky said.
Belarus’ Investigative Committee said Thursday it was also investigating whether the detained Russians could have been involved in preparations for staging “mass riots” as part of a criminal probe against a jailed opposition blogger, Sergei Tikhanovsky. He has been in custody since May on charges of attacking a police officer, which he rejected as a provocation
Tikhanovsky’s wife, Svetlana, who is challenging Lukashenko in the election, dismissed the new accusations against her husband as “absolutely unlawful.” Election officials rejected attempts by two other potential presidential challengers to register for the race.
Over 20,000 Tikhanovskaya’s supporters gathered Thursday at her rally in Minsk, the biggest since the start of the campaign. Many participants dismissed the official claims of a Russian subversion plot as a sham.
“We are worried about the lack of money to buy food and medicines, not some mythical enemies and plots,” retiree Nikolai Ostapchuk, 72, said.
“No one believes in these thriller stories about Russian militants, which are intended to switch our attention, scare us and keep us at home,” said 43-year-old driver Dmitry Furkovsky.
Source: Associated Press
More details of the 33 Russian mercenaries arrested in Minsk emerged on July 30. Belarus has accused a Kremlin-linked military contractor of sending 200 fighters to destabilise the country ahead of August 9 presidential elections in which long-time ruler Alexander Lukashenko is facing an unprecedented challenge.
Political analysts remain suspicious of the arrests, video of which was broadcast on national TV, saying that the drama may be a ruse by the president to call a state of emergency and clamp down on swelling opposition rallies or maybe to cancel the upcoming elections entirely.
“Obviously it is early and we don’t have all the facts, but it seems highly likely the arrest of these 33 Russian Wagner contractors has more to do with domestic Belarusian politics and the election than it does with foreign interference,” tweeted Rob Lee, a PhD political science candidate who follows Belarus.
Lukashenko called an emergency meeting of his Security Council on July 29 the same day as arrests to assess the situation.
The president has been playing up the “enemy at the gate” theme for more than a week. Five days ago he said: “State Secretary Andrei Ravkov was right when he said that all modern wars begin with street protests, rallies and Maidan-type revolutions. If there are not enough people here to take part in such revolutions, they will bring them from abroad… These are professional military, gangsters who are specially trained, mostly as part of private military companies all over the world and they make big money from staging provocations in various states.”
Russia’s embassy in Belarus said that they have not received any official notification from Belarusian authorities about the detention of Russian citizens, and they have requested information from Belarus.
Lukashenko claims the mercenaries were in Minsk as part of a 200-strong military team sent by Moscow to destabilise the country during the elections.
However, evidence has emerged that suggests the men were simply stopping off in Minsk, which has become a convenient transit point during the coronacrisis, en route to Libya, where they had been contracted to provide security for an oil facility.
“As it became known to the @wargonzo project from sources in the Russian special services, Minsk was used by the Wagnerites as a transshipment point for the transfer of fighters to other countries, mostly African,” according to the WarGonzo telegram channel, run by a well-known Russian reporter.
“Naturally, the Belarusian special services were aware of and warned in advance, and in fact ensured a calm process during the pandemic, the transfer of our soldiers to the eastern fronts. The coronavirus regime between Belarus and other countries, as you yourself understand, is much milder than in the case of the Russian Federation,” WarGonzo added. “Agreements on this transport corridor were reached at the highest level and Lukashenka, of course, was aware of why the Wagnerians were in Minsk and where they were going.”
The Belarus presidential press service claimed the men are employed by the Wagner company that belongs to Yegveny Prigozhin, a personal friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has been employed by the Russian government to fight in Syria and other hotspots around the world.
“If they’re guilty, we should get out of this situation with dignity,” Lukashenko said of the alleged Russian involvement. “If they’re not guilty – good, we don’t have any goal of smearing the country that’s close to us.”
Lukashenko has built his presidential campaign on demonstrating that Belarus faces an external threat, and the capture of the Russian group fits that narrative, Minsk-based military analyst Yahor Lebiadok told Bloomberg.
Publically Lukashenko is playing up the security threat and has announced that controls on the border with Russia have been increased and the security services have been put on high alert.
“If these were private army fighters being sent on a mission abroad via Belarus, we would have expected to be informed by Russian special services. Neither FSB nor GRU have informed us… Judging by presence of snipers, bomb and IT experts, we must escalate our security measures,” Lukashenko said.
Another Telegram channel RSOTM that follows the private military companies claims the men belong to the Mar PMSC and were on their way to Turkey from Minsk before flying on to Libya, where they were contracted to protect an oil facility on behalf of the Turkish- backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.
Russia’s Pravda also reported that, according to informed Belarusian sources, the detained Russians belong to the Mar and not Wagner private military company (PMC) and that Artyom Milyaev was responsible for recruitment.
The Mar PMC was established in 2014 by Alexei Marushchenko following the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The group has operated in many war zones but purportedly does not fight, instead providing armed protection for transport and facilities. Marushchenko claims Mar was never present in the Donbass.
“[Marushchenko] said his group wasn’t fighting in the Donbass but they were helping evacuate people from there and conduct investigations. He said he had 70 people in his PMC in the Donbass in September 2015, who were almost all former military servicemen and were at least 26 years old,” Lee tweeted.
There have also been reports that several of the fighters have seen action in the breakaway Ukrainian region of Donbass, where the Kremlin has been actively supporting separatists in their military conflict with Kyiv.
The Belarus presidential press service said: “14 of the detained mercenaries were known to have fought in Donbass, therefore we have summoned the Ukrainian ambassador to discuss next steps.”
“According to the Ukrainian site Myrotvorets, which tracks combatants who fought in Ukraine, three of the detained Russians fought in the Donbass,” Lee said. Myrotvorets list of Russians known to have fought in the Donbass contains 16 of the mercenaries’ names.
Zachary Prilepin, the Russian author who boasts of killing many Ukrainian soldiers during his time fighting in Donbass, says some of the Russians arrested in Belarus were members of his battalion but believes they were simply transiting.
“Wagner is currently heavily involved in Libya, and it is increasingly likely that a large battle will occur in the city of Sirte in the near future. These contractors arrested in Belarus may have been much-needed reinforcements,” Lee added.
Source: bne IntelliNews