On July 29, 2020, the information field of Belarus exploded with the news of the detention of 32 male citizens of Russia, who worked for the so-called Wagner PMC, in one of the sanatoriums near Minsk.
The event is more than scandalous and is developing. However, certain intermediate conclusions can be drawn now.
Background. Official sources report that on the night of July 24-25, this organized group of Russian citizens settled in one of the hotels in Minsk, where they stayed until July 27. After that they moved to one of the sanatoriums of the Minsk region, which belongs to the official trade unions. It is worth recalling that the head of official state trade unions Mikhail Orda also headed the initiative group for the nomination of Aliaksandr Lukashenka as a presidential candidate.
Anyone who has been to Belarusian sanatoriums knows that they offer favourable conditions not only for health improvement, but also for fun drinking and affordable sex — rest for every taste. Against this background, 32 healthy, sexually mature men, adhering to the military style of clothing, not drinking alcohol and avoiding women with the aim (as the Belarusian state propaganda reports) “… not to attract attention to themselves” did directly that – attracted attention. One can remember an anecdote: “Stirlitz climbed onto a telegraph pole and opened a newspaper in order not to attract the attention of passers-by.”
The detainees had three large, heavy suitcases with them, which could be lifted only by a group of people. At the same time, nothing is reported about the contents of the mysterious suitcases.
The Belarusian authorities claim that they received information about the arrival of more than 200 militants in our country to destabilize the situation during the election campaign.
The Belarusian authorities received information about the militants who had arrived no later than July 23, 2020. Because already on July 24, 2020 Lukashenka mentioned the possibility of the participation of foreign PMC fighters in destabilization of the situation inside our country. Otherwise, it will be necessary to admit that the Belarusian leader has a gift of foresight: on May 29, 2020, 4 hours before the arrest of Siarhei Tsikhanouski as the result of the provocation, Lukashenka described in detail future events. On March 21, 2017, he also announced that two dozen militants with weapons were detained “… literally at these hours,” although the arrests took place in the late afternoon of the same day and became known as the “Patriots’ Case”.
On July 29, 2020, at about 5.30 a.m., the aforementioned 32 people were detained by the Belarusian security forces. At the same time, judging by the indirect testimony of the Belarusian officials, they did not put up resistance and the very detention came as a surprise to them. On the same day, the 33rd member of the group was detained somewhere in the south of the country.
Meeting of the Security Council. On July 29, 2020 Lukashenka convened an emergency meeting of the Security Council in a truncated format: the heads of the Ministry of Defence and the Army, as well as the Foreign Ministry, were absent. Although the event caused a stir with the expectation of almost a state of emergency, the statements made were quite restrained in form, but having far-reaching consequences in content.
It was stated that:
— the detainees represent a Russian structure, the so-called Wagner PMC (formally in Russia this kind of activity is not regulated, i.e. de jure PMCs do not exist in Russia);
— Russia was accused of having some dirty intentions towards Belarus;
— allegedly the Russian side claims that the Belarusian authorities themselves almost brought the detainees to Belarus.
All of these statements were made publicly on purpose. This format complicates the backstage settlement of the problem and presupposes further escalation at the rhetoric level.
Meanwhile, sources linked to the Russian security forces claim that Belarus was used as a transit point for the movement of Russian military contractors, and not as a destination country. The transit was carried out with informing and in agreement with the competent authorities of Belarus. The Sudanese pounds and telephone cards of this country as well as some forms in Arabic script, seized from the mercenaries, testifies in favour of the Russian version of the appearance of Wagner’s fighters in Minsk. However, these items do not convincingly testify to anything.
Political moment. The accusation of the Russian Wagner PMC of subversive activities against Belarus will definitely have serious/disastrous consequences for the Belarusian-Russian political relations.
Earlier, the Belarusian state propaganda claimed that some Russian business circles were behind the protest activity in our country. At first, this was seen as an allusion to Gazprom. But in connection with the events in question, the figure of the so-called “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin appears.
It should be noted that Mr. Prigozhin is, first of all, a confidant of the Russian President. He solved and is deciding for Vladimir Putin issues in which the participation of the official structures of the Russian state is undesirable from an image or political point of view. One of the tools for resolving such issues is Wagner PMC.
“Private military company” as applied to this organization is nothing more than camouflage. This is a Russian state structure that promotes the geopolitical and geo-economic influence of the Kremlin in various regions of the world. This is done using means from which decent governments are trying to disown. At the same time, there is a clear desire of the Russian authorities to bring Wagner PMCs to self-sufficiency: Russian influence should be promoted at the expense of rent derived from the territories in which this influence is promoted. There is a desire to form a self-sustaining system that would cost nothing to the Kremlin financially, or would be cheap: a sort of analogue of English privateering in the 21st century.
Wagner PMC closely interacts with the security forces of Russia: the preparation and partly the material and technical supply of the group, at least previously, was carried out with the support of the Russian Ministry of Defense. Although there was information that in Syria the official Russian military had friction with the Wagner troops. However, this does not negate the simple fact that Wagner PMC is an instrument of the Kremlin, part of the system of forceful promotion of Russian influence abroad.
Publicly accusing Wagner PMC of subversive activities against Belarus, official Minsk actually blamed the Kremlin for this. We have witnessed the transition of the Belarusian-Russian political contradictions into a new, much more confrontational format.
Briefing by Andrei Raukou. July 30, 2020 State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus Andrei Raukou held a briefing for presidential candidates on the case of Wagner PMC. Summary:
— A criminal case has been initiated against the detainees for preparing terrorist attacks (this is exactly how it is, in the plural, according to the media reports, which refer directly to Raukou).
— During the campaigning events of presidential candidates, control and security measures on the part of law enforcement officers will be strengthened. Obviously, we are talking about inspection, the use of special equipment. This will objectively exert psychological pressure on the participants of such events and complicate their implementation, if law enforcement officers inspect the visitors especially carefully and slowly. By “pure coincidence,” this will practically affect only Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, because the other candidates either conduct mass campaign events inactively, or do not conduct them at all.
— There are up to 200 Wagner fighters who are currently being searched for.
— Two more groups of militants have been formed on the territory of the Pskov region of Russia with the aim of advancing to Belarus in the coming days.
-The authorities do not rule out blocking the Internet as a last resort.
What’s wrong with the official versions. So, there are two versions of what happened:
— the official Minsk publicly claims that it has identified and suppressed the military special operation of the neighbouring formally allied state against the sovereignty of Belarus;
— Moscow publicly but unofficially asserts that there are Wagner fighters in Belarus, but there is no subversive activity. In Belarus they are there with the knowledge and in agreement with the Belarusian side, using the territory of our country for further transit to the states of “engagement”.
Both versions raise a number of questions.
The open movement of commandos by platoon in enemy territory is something unusual. Obviously, the behaviour of the Wagner fighters was not intended to hide the fact of their presence in Belarus, but rather related to the specific corporate culture of the organization. Disguise and legend suggest a radically different format of behaviour than one demonstrated by the detainees. The Belarusian authorities did not say whether there was anything interesting in the militants’ heavy suitcases. As well as they are silent about how the detained Russians got to Belarus, on what grounds Russian border guards let them into our country, and where did the commandos plan to get weapons for their terrorist activities. Nothing was reported about the detection of weapons / ammunition with them.
In addition, the behaviour of the Belarusian authorities, if the threat of terrorist attacks is real, looks overly relaxed:
— the closure of the border with Russia was not yet reported (there is information only about strengthening operational control);
— there are no signs of Belarusian troops moving to the east of the country in the direction of possible breakthrough points of the militants;
— no political demarches and appeals for external support to partner countries happened.
The security measures announced by the authorities during the current election campaign objectively create the greatest problems for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. They do not in any way affect the actual level of safety of the participants in the same pre-election campaigning events: an explosion/shooting can be arranged even before the metal detector/checkpoint.
The Russian version of Minsk as a transit hub for the Wagner fighters is also lame. Let’s start with the fact that there is no regular communication from Minsk with the countries where the presence of fighters of this Russian organization is currently observed. One must fly with transfers. For example, to the same Sudan via Kiev. In the situation, when the activities and personnel of Wagner PMC are the object of close interest in almost all Western special services, this is difficult. As well as following through any other western country. Well, super-heavy suitcases simply draw special attention of the security services of transit countries.
If we take on faith the Russian version of Minsk as a transit point for the Wagner fighters, then the reason for their delay in the Belarusian territory is not clear: it would be logical to expect that they would arrive in Belarus shortly before the departure of their flight. All Minsk sights can be seen in a day, while the detainees were not interested in the women and alcohol, as established by the Belarusian law enforcement agencies.
The hypothesis. Taking into account the nature of the activities of Wagner PMC, it would be more rational from the point of view of security and secrecy of information to transport the mercenaries directly from Russia by special aircraft. For example, this was done in the Syrian campaign.
But mass transportation is one thing. Raising a plane for a one-time delivery of 30 fighters may be financially unreasonable. While the secrecy of movements should be preserved.
We can propose the following hypothesis. Indeed, the Wagner fighters used Belarus as a transit point to travel to the country of engagement. But not in a long circle, with transfers. Directly from Minsk. For example, as passengers on special flights operated within the framework of military-technical cooperation between Belarus and foreign states.
The detainees could have arrived in Minsk both as passengers-fellow travellers of the special cargo, and as persons accompanying it. It was the nature of the cargo that could be the reason why the mercenaries stayed in Belarus for four days. For example, its technical unavailability for delivery to the customer: very often the last day is missing. But this is if the consignor is located in Belarus.
It cannot be ruled out that the Belarusian side organized transport services for the transportation of passengers and/or cargo (those same mysterious suitcases seized from detainees) on terms commercially attractive for Wagner PMC. The breakdown of the plane is quite an explanation for the delay of the mercenaries in Minsk, awaiting the repair and flight.
This hypothesis also explains Lukashenka’s statements about the accusation from the Russian side that the Belarusian authorities brought in the detainees themselves. If the mercenaries were actually fellow passengers or accompanying the cargo from the sender in Belarus, or were planning to use the transport services of a Belarusian carrier, then this is possible only with the knowledge, consent and assistance of the Belarusian authorities.
The correctness of our hypothesis means that the Wagner fighters are essentially trapped. Regardless of their further fate, such things are not forgiven. Minsk understands this. Nevertheless, Belarusian authorities demonstrated their readiness to escalate political relations: made albeit a veiled, but public accusation of the Kremlin of de facto subversive/terrorist activity in Belarus. It is difficult to interpret this situation otherwise.
One can only guess about the reasons that prompted the official Minsk to act in a similar vein. The desire to reinforce the official version of Russian participation in the protests in Belarus and to actualize the false choice “Belarus will have either Lukashenka or Putin” in the eyes of the West is only one of them, but hardly the main one.
Now we can confidently assert: a response from Russia will follow. But later, after August 9th. It is unlikely that the Kremlin will allow to draw itself into the manipulations of the official Minsk in order to intimidate the West and ensure its support for the Belarusian regime.