Making Sense of the Arrest of Russian Mercenaries in Belarus

Making Sense of the Arrest of Russian Mercenaries in Belarus
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko at a ceremony in the village of Khoroshevo, Russia, June 30, 2020 (Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev for Sputnik via AP Images).

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 U.S.-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 Aug. 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.

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