Elections are approaching in Belarus and President Alexander Lukashenko really wants to maintain power. His friendly neighbor, the Russian Federation, led by President Vladimir Putin, has had Belarus in its sights for some time now, pushing the independent Lukashenko to move back into Moscow’s orbit of influence. Minsk and Moscow have fought over borders, oil subsidies, ties to the EU and the US, and possible Russian military installations in the former Soviet republic.
So, it comes with surprising interest this morning, the arrest of 33 Russian ‘Wagner Group’ mercenaries in-country, as the election approaches. Another 200 are wanted. Wagner is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin. a.k.a. ‘Putin’s Chef’, a man who has become integral into global paramilitary operations for the Kremlin.
There are many theories floating about regarding this development. Reports are the men actually are Wagner operatives.
“Lukashenko, of course, was aware of why the Wagner fighters were in Minsk and where they were heading,” military correspondent Semyon Pegov wrote, reported The Moscow Times.
“Our own independent research shows that they really are Wagner fighters,” Denis Korotkov, a journalist with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper who specializes in covering the Wagner Group, told The Moscow Times. “We have our own documents identifying a third of the soldiers. Nine names on the list are not known to us yet. Around 10 of them fought in Syria, and around the same number fought in Ukraine. It is harder to provide definite evidence of their involvement in African wars.”
The most viable explanation seems to be an orchestrated operation to possibly delay the Aug 9 elections in which Lukashenko has faced unprecedented internal opposition, resulting in widespread repression in the country.
Belarus investigators on Thursday accused the mercenaries and top Lukashenko critics Sergei Tikhanovsky and Mikola Statkevich of plotting mass unrest ahead of presidential elections. Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger, was jailed last month, preventing him from submitting his own presidential bid. Opposition politician Statkevich was also jailed in the run-up to the election, wrote The Moscow Times.
For its part, the Kremlin admitted the men had been detained, and said it ‘awaited clarification’.
“Today, our ambassador held a meeting in the Foreign Ministry and with [our] colleagues in Minsk. We hope that we will receive comprehensive information about what happened as a result of that communication and through communication channels between our special services,” explained Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
“No doubt, we expect that all the rights of detained Russian citizens will be observed in full.”
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stressed that the country’s authorities had no goal of defaming their neighbor. Meanwhile, political scientists note that the Russians’ detention could serve as a political card played during the final stage of the Belarusian presidential campaign, added Russian state news agency TASS.
During this election campaign, Russia has repeatedly been branded “the bad guy,” Kommersant business daily writes. Belarusian political scientist Alexei Dzermant attributed the events to “heightened anxiety” among security forces ahead of the election. However, in his words, this incident cannot be called a new low in bilateral relations. “The Belarusian authorities have already requested explanations from their Russian colleagues and everything should be clarified soon,” he told the paper. “I doubt that the Wagner private military company could have meddled in the domestic affairs of Belarus and most likely, this is a false alarm.” The expert does not expect that this detention will be followed by the introduction of a state of emergency and the cancellation of the election. “The situation is rather stable and rumors of large-scale rallies after the August 9 vote are unjustified. So, the authorities don’t have any reasons to take extreme measures.”
Kirill Koktysh, an associate professor of political theory at MGIMO University, ruled out the scenario that Moscow could have plotted any military intervention in Belarusian affairs, stressing that this runs counter to Russian doctrine and politics as well as its interests. All this seems to be “a set-up,” the expert noted.
Tsarizm will update this story as more information is received.
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