In the early hours of a sunny July morning, Belarusian special forces stormed a spa hotel outside Minsk. The 33 Russian nationals who came out, hunched over and handcuffed, were accused by Belarusian authorities of belonging to the Russian private military group Wagner, and were quickly expelled. Now, a report from investigative journalism site Bellingcat says the Russians were lured into Minsk as part of an undercover operation orchestrated by Ukrainian military intelligence.
The discovery of the suspected mercenaries in Minsk sparked a political scandal, the repercussions of which are still felt today in the unpredictable relations between Russia and Belarus. Belarusian President Lukashenko berated Russia and Belarusian state media claimed fighters were in Minsk to sow the seeds of unrest as the country prepared for a controversial election the following month.
Yet Bellingcat’s recent investigation indicates that the fighters were in Minsk not on Russian orders, but as part of an elaborate undercover operation designed to prove the mercenary group’s involvement in the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
The private military group Wagner has been involved in Russian government sponsored fighting and intelligence gathering in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic. Ukrainian military intelligence agency GUR MOU launched the operation with the aim of proving that the group was present in the Donbass region and bringing some members to a Ukrainian court, according to the report.
After discovering that the inactive fighters of the Wagner group were being sent back to their hometowns pending their redeployment, the Ukrainian intelligence agency devised a bogus mission, which it proposed to a group of mercenaries. Under the auspices of a Russian entrepreneur, he offered them to work at guard facilities in the Middle East owned by state-owned oil giant Rosneft, according to the report.
A bogus recruiter, “Sergey Petrovich”, conducted interviews with the former agents to integrate them into the team. Bellingcat claims to have access to hundreds of audio recordings of job “interviews” conducted by “Sergey Petrovich” with dozens of mercenary candidates.
The bogus post organized by Ukrainian military intelligence was advertised as paying 225,000 RUB (about $ 3,200), according to the Bellingcat report.
As part of the interview process, applicants were asked to provide evidence of their service in Ukraine, and Bellingcat claims to have access to documents proving that the Russian government supported and directed the operations of the apparently private Wagner PMC.
After a wave of coronavirus (COVID-19) blockages in Russia and a series of complications that led to the fictitious death of the fictitious “Sergey Petrovich”, the operation has finally entered its active phase, designed with the ultimate aim of force a plane carrying Wagner militants over Ukraine to land, capture them and bring them to Ukrainian court.
But with Russian airports effectively locked, that meant first going to Minsk, Belarus, before being “deployed” via Istanbul. It was on this Minsk-Istanbul flight that the plane carrying fighters to Belarus was intended to make an emergency landing in Kiev after a “bomb threat” made by the GUR MOU. The evidence for this allegation appears to come from a television interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in June 2021, when he said of a Ukrainian operation: “And as to the fact that it failed – and once again I draw a parallel with what happened in Belarus – I think, thank goodness, we got our foot on this important issue, ”apparently referring to the forced landing of a Ryanair flight carrying Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich to Minsk the previous month.
However, the active phase of the operation was continually postponed as a series of issues arose, such as finding a flight to Istanbul that had enough free seats for all mercenaries to be captured and avoiding suspicion from the Belarusian KGB. The group of fighters was held in Minsk for weeks and moved from a hotel in the city center to a spa hotel outside the city.
Just a day before their scheduled flight, the suspected fighters were arrested by a group of Belarusian KGB hooded Spetsnaz. Their luggage was ransacked for weapons and they were driven out of the hotel at gunpoint as state television cameras broadcast footage of their detention.
Although President Zelenskiy personally pushed for the extradition of the men to Ukraine during a phone call to President Lukashenko on August 5, 2020, they were eventually returned to Russia after at least three Russian military planes and / or the FSB made unannounced trips to Minsk. within a week of the election, according to Bellingcat.
While the Bellingcat report is an intriguing read and the allegations, if true, point to a brazen operation by Ukrainian intelligence agencies, the situation also has serious implications for Russia-Belarus relations.
Belarus’s continued insistence that the mercenaries were there on Russian orders appears to be a major blunder in the context of the alleged Ukrainian operation. While tensions between Belarus and Russia are already high over Belarus’s feud with Poland and its threat to cut off Russian gas to Europe, this is another sign that relations between the two nations deteriorate.