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August 6, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8883

Russian Reactions To Belarus Authorities' Arrest Of 33 Wagner Group Contractors Ahead Of Belarus Presidential Election

August 6, 2020
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 8883

On July 29, 2020, Belarus reported that 33 Russian nationals had been detained in the country earlier that day, on suspicion of masterminding mass unrest to take place during the run-up to or following Belarus' August 9, 2020 presidential election. Belarus identified the 33 as members of the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group. Almost all of them were arrested in Minsk, at a sanitarium near the residence of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus identified the 33 as members of the Russian private military contractor the Wagner Group.

Russia's Foreign Ministry claimed that the detainees had been en route to Istanbul, with a Minsk stopover, as attested to by their airline tickets. Belarus' Committee of Investigations claimed that the tickets were a cover and that the detainees had had no intention of continuing on to Istanbul from Minsk.[1]

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on July 31 that Moscow had not been provided with complete information about the incident, including about any illegal activities that could prompt the arrest of the Russians. Peskov dismissed allegations about a link between the incident and the upcoming presidential election in Belarus as "speculations."[2]

Belarus President Lukashenko addressed the issue with his country's security council, saying: "I look at the reaction of the Russians. They are already making excuses, saying that we almost brought them [the detainees] here ourselves. Clearly, you [Russians] need to somehow justify your dirty intentions [to stir unrest]. Therefore, I would very much want, in such a situation [i.e. an incident involving Russia] and with this fact available, for everything to be extremely frank and honest. If these are Russian citizens (so I understand, as they were interrogated [and acknowledged this]), then it is necessary to immediately contact the relevant bodies of the Russian Federation, so that they can explain what is happening... If they are found guilty, we must get out of this situation with dignity. [If they are] not guilty – well, we have no objective in discrediting a neighboring country."[3]

Lukashenko also met with Belarus KGB chairman Valery Vakulchik and Investigative Committee chief Ivan Noskevich about the detention of the 33 Russians. Lukashenko drew attention to the need to find out the aim of the detainees, since it was clear that they were not sent to Istanbul, and added that they were just the first contingent of a total of 200 people who were slated to arrive in Belarus. He also called Russia's attempts to conceal their Russian origins "total crap."[4]


One of the Russian detainees is led to arrest vehicles (Source: Rus.azattyq.org)

Despite the gravity of the alleged offense, Russian diplomats in Belarus were allowed to meet the 33 detainees a few days later. Kirill Pletnev, Consul of Russia's Minsk Embassy, dismissed the accusations against the Russians as far-fetched and invalid. According to Pletnev, the detainees were not connected with opposition Belarusian politicians Sergei Tikhanovsky and Nikolai Statkevich; they had simply missed their connecting flight to Turkey.[5]

"We hope, and we're even certain, that very soon our Belarusian colleagues will sort out this incident and free the Russian citizens," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on July 31, when Russian president Vladimir Putin discussed the matter with his security council. He added: "Without a doubt, the baseless arrest of the Russian citizens... does not entirely fit with the framework of allied relations," referring to the so-called union state via which Russia and Belarus are deepening their integration.

Peskov added that the Kremlin was "extremely concerned" that Russian diplomats had not yet been allowed to meet the detainees, and, calling them "mercenaries," insisted that they had been travelling legally through Belarus to another, unnamed, country.

"Belarus is our ally, and of course we want the [election] campaign to go as successfully as possible. We don't plan to interfere," he said, noting that Putin had not discussed the incident with Lukashenko.[6]

While keeping its original response low key, Moscow was obviously displeased when Belarus chose to involve Ukraine in the affair. In a phone conversation, the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Belarus, Dmitry Kuleba and Vladimir Makei, discussed the arrest of the Russians. Kuleba expressed his countries' gratitude to Belarus for sending Ukraine the list of detainees, saying that Belarus and Ukraine "are not only partners, but neighbors and friends as well" and that "Kiev supports Belarus in protecting its sovereignty and economic security."[7]

The release of the list to the Ukrainians prompted an extradition demand from Kiev, as many on the list had participated in the fighting in Donbass in support of the local separatists who sought to attach the region to Russia. Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov noted that the detained Russians, who he said had been accused of preparing a terrorist attack in Belarus, had previously killed, maimed and tortured members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces during the civil war in Donbass. He concluded: "When 33 foreign mercenaries who shed blood and orchestrated armed provocations in Syria, Sudan, Libya, and the Ukrainian Donbass set up their base 1.5 km from the residence of the president of the country [i.e. of Belarus – Alexander Lukashenko] – It is a very dangerous situation... Obviously, we are talking about some kind of operation of the Russian special services."

Irina Venediktova, Prosecutor General of Ukraine, stated that 28 of the 33 detainees "are suspected of participation in a terrorist organization."[8]

Commenting on the talks between the Ukraine and Belarus foreign ministers, Russian Senator Alexei Pushkov warned on his Telegram account that "Belarus is beginning to be openly involved in anti-Russian games." The instigators of this incident were Poland and Ukraine, he said, calling Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine "the Lublin Triangle" targeting Russia and encouraging Belarus "to take further action against Moscow."[9]


Alexei Pushkov (Source: Rg.ru)

According to the Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon, "a green light was given [by Lukashenko] to the procurator and other Belarus law enforcement bodies, who, in accordance with Belarusian legality, will do all that is necessary to extradite the criminals both to Russia and Ukraine.[10] Lukashenko twisted the knife further into Russia by issuing instructions that the procurator-generals of both Ukraine and Russia be invited to Minsk because he wanted to decide the fate of the 33 "soldiers" not solely on the basis of domestic law, but on the basis of international law and humanity. "If they do not come we will decide without them," he added. [11] Thus, Russia was effectively summoned to stand alongside Ukraine to Lukashenko's Solomonic judgement in the matter.

Lukashenko's actions stirred debate in Russia over the correct response to the incident. Although there was a general consensus that the charges of Russian interference in the upcoming Belarus presidential election? were false and designed to boost Lukashenko's electoral prospects, opinions varied over whether the relationship could be patched up. Some believed that this was a periodic hiccup in the relationship, that could be smoothed over once the election was past, and that Lukashenko remained a reliable ally of Russia. Others believed that Lukashenko had to be put in his place and that his calumnies against Russia had seriously damaged the relationship. Kommersant columnist Dmitry Drize set out the most radical approach: Russia should cut Lukashenko loose, as the Belarus opposition would prove to be a better partner than the ailing autocrat.

Below is a review of reactions in Russia to the arrests of the 33 Russian nationals in Belarus.

The Arrests Were False And Electorally Motivated – But Belarus Remains An Ally

Sergei Naryshkin, Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (FSU) director, believed that the arrests of the 33 were staged, but expressed hope that the incident would be quickly settled: "This is in the interests of developing friendly, fraternal relations between our two countries and two nations."[12]


Sergei Naryshkin (Source: Rbc.ua)

Viktor Volodatsky, First Deputy Chairman of the Duma's Committee on CIS Affairs, Eurasian Integration and Relations with Compatriots, said that Moscow had not meddled in Belarus domestic affairs and had no intention of doing so. But he sought to clear Lukashenko in the matter by speculating that the arrests could have been plotted by certain circles in Belarus with the aim of misleading him, noting: "Someone seeks to show that ahead of the August 9 election certain foreign elements had planned to intervene." Volodatsky expressed his confidence that "the Russian citizens will soon be released and the situation will be ironed out. It won't have any negative impact on the solid relationship between Russia and Belarus, and Moscow and Minsk will keep building the Union State because both parties are interested in this." [13]

Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Institute of CIS Countries, claimed in an interview with TASS that the detention of Russian citizens in Minsk was a PR effort to abet Lukashenko's reelection campaign, and was unlikely to have long-term consequences. He said that he hoped that the "pursuit of political points" would go no further and would not lead to the extradition of some of the detained Russians to Ukraine: "I think, I hope at least, that this situation does not lead anywhere except for achieving a PR result, needed by the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko in the election campaign." He added that Belarus knew that Russia would play the responsible adult in the relationship, and would not allow itself to act rashly in response to the harsh statements made at Russia's expense.[14]

The most impassioned defense of Lukashenko came from Ria.ru commentator Petr Akopov, in an article titled "Why Lukashenko Will Soon Correct His Mistake." In it, he argued that the charges against the Russians were absurd: "There is no doubt that Lukashenko will be re-elected president for the sixth term in the first round [of elections], so who and why needs this strange story that tests the strength of relations between the two countries and undermines Lukashenko's confidence in Russia?

"I need to make it clear right away: No one believes that Putin was going to overthrow Lukashenko. All 20 years of two leaders' relations (they know each other even longer), not to mention the relations between the two states, suggest that even an assumption about [Putin wanting to dethrone Lukashenko] is completely absurd. Likewise, there is no reason to suspect the Russian authorities of any desire to plan a change of power in Belarus (including the violent scenario). That is, despite the fact that Minsk does not believe in the explanations that Russian PMC [Wagner Group] members were in Belarus only for transit, the Belarus authorities cannot come up with a convincing version of the destructive actions they supposedly were planning."

He added that the charge that Russia wanted to stir up unrest to weaken Lukashenko and make his reelection illegitimate was illogical and flew in the face of Russia's steadfast opposition to color revolutions: "Russia consistently opposes 'color revolutions,' but suddenly, by its strange operation to discredit Lukashenko, the Kremlin increases the (albeit small) chances of a color revolution in Belarus?

"And most importantly, why does Moscow need to weaken Lukashenko at all (especially by such methods)? Well, why, he turns to West, as some of our security officials constantly tell us. I'm speaking about those security officials who worry not about the protection of the interests of the 'Russian world' and Russia, but who are constantly panicking at any changes in the post-Soviet space (which truly became a place of constant struggle between Russia and the West, but which we, despite all the lamentations, are not losing at all).

"Yes, Lukashenko made peace with the U.S. last year: an American embassy was opened in Minsk. Yes, Lukashenko was tough in negotiations on deeper integration within the Union State. Yes, Lukashenko started talking more often about Russia forcing its terms on Belarus. But there is nothing anti-Russian in all these actions.

"On the contrary, integration is happening with Russia, not with the West. There are no indications of a Ukrainian scenario, there is no danger of its repetition, despite the lamenting of our alarmists. There are so many reasons for this, both objective and subjective, so it feels strange to recall them. [In Belarus] there is no flirtation with radical anti-Russian nationalists (there are much fewer of them in Belarus than there were in Ukraine); there are no corrupt elites oriented towards the West, just as there is no purposeful large-scale work by the West within Belarusian society, which has completely different sentiments and mood [than Ukraine].

"And the main reason [for all this] is that Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994, was and remains a consistent supporter of the fraternal union of the two states and nations. He was the initiator of the creation of the Union State and has always emphasized our unity. Yes, a complete merger [of the two states] never happened, but this is a task for the next historical period, the one that will come after Lukashenko. But these times will not come as a result of violent regime change, which is the only option, considering the popularity of the Belarus leader (according to any estimates, he has the support of more than half of the population). So, Moscow does not want Lukashenko to leave – but who does?

"The part of Belarusian society which is oriented towards the West wants it [i.e. Lukashenko to leave]. The West itself, rather, those forces that were betting on the Ukraine's distancing from Russia, and who still think that they managed to do this permanently, also want it. Lukashenko and Putin have common enemies, and although this is not the main thing that unites them, this should never be forgotten."

Akopov argued that there was no point in punishing Lukashenko for the arrests: "Moscow does not want to punish Lukashenko or aggravate relations, because [the Kremlin] separates immediate problems from the strategic course. Lukashenko is not a traitor to fraternal relations; he is the head of a small state that accidentally became independent after the collapse of the USSR. [This is] the state in which one part of the Russian nation lives – the Belarusians, who have never separated their fate from the fate of the entire Russian world. Periodic quarrels between the two states of one nation over energy prices or over integration issues are nothing compared to the background of what binds us."

The Ukrainian aspect was an irritant, he said, but expressed his certainty that this too would pass: "It is clear that the very idea that Lukashenko might extradite our citizens to Kiev caused an extremely negative reaction in Russia, but there are still no grounds for such fears. Lukashenko simply cannot do anything of the kind – at least not the Lukashenko we have known all these years. There will be no other Lukashenko after August 9, which means that Russian citizens will soon return home.

"Lukashenko is wrong in this story. However, those in Russia, who despite any difficulties in the two countries' relations begin to call the Belarusian president a 'freeloader,' a 'traitor,' and 'the one who leads his country to the Ukrainian scenario,' are also wrong. No matter what good intentions may guide such patriots, they actually cause enormous damage to our union, and hence to the interests of Russia."[15]


Petr Akopov (Source: Izborsk.md)

Lukashenko Is A Parasite And A Freeloader

Another school of thought maintained that Lukashenko had gone too far, even if the arrests were meant to assure his political survival.

In a radio interview, Konstantin Zatulin, deputy chairman of the State Duma Committee for CIS Affairs, Eurasian Integration and Relations with Compatriots said that Lukashenko had become a parasite and a veritable freeloader in Russia-Belarus relations. He added that the arrests were a provocation in which "Lukashenko risked relations with Russia for the sake of his own interests, in order to reimpose himself as president when the country was in the throes of a protest movement."[16]

Political scientist Vladimir Zharikhin said that it was time for Russia to "set some limits with Lukashenko." The Belarus authorities, he said, desired the furor for political purposes, not for state security: "Lukashenko got rid of candidates who could compete with him in support for maintaining relations with Russia, and now believes that it is necessary to grab the votes of the pro-Western-minded. With this move, he also wants to show the West the prospects of possible relations... In any case, all this does not benefit relations with Russia."[17]

Mk.ru observer Mikhail Rostovsky, while admiring Lukashenko's political acrobatics, noted that the damage to bilateral relations was real and could not be resolved with a ritualistic kiss-and-make-up session: "The cunning Belarusian Old Man Alexander Lukashenko staged a pre-election aggravation of relations with Moscow. In 1994, he won the first presidential election of his career by skillfully playing the Russian card – peddling the theme of maximum rapprochement with the Russian Federation in every possible way. It seems that Lukashenko also intends to win the 2020 presidential election by playing the Russian card [again], but [this time] in reverse.

"In his new incarnation as a heroic fighter for the freedom and independence of Belarus, Alexander Grigorievich [Lukashenko] is thwarting an insidious plan to organize a coup d'état in his country, exposing 33 Kremlin saboteurs just in the nick of time. All this is happening against the background of the imminent appearance in Minsk of the first full-fledged U.S. ambassador in many years.

"Acting in a similar, deliberately provocative manner, the Belarus leader apparently plans to kill two birds with one stone – to win the election as smoothly as possible, and to pin Russia to the wall and put it in the deliberately losing position of a country forced to make excuses. But will his political game take on a life of its own? Will it not become the beginning of a process of irreversible change in Moscow-Minsk relations?"

He said that as Belarus is a police state, the 33 Russians could not have arrived unbeknownst to the authorities, and therefore this was outright entrapment: "Belarus is a country of the fearless KGB, a state in which everything must be monitored and x-rayed. If a group of employees of a private military enterprise close to the Russian authorities arrives in [such a place], it means that everything was arranged in advance with the local authorities."

According to Rostovsky, the whole affair was an attempt by Lukashenko to reframe the electoral agenda: "Firstly, the Old Man flatly refused to play the game that his domestic political opponents diligently imposed on him: the young and fresh faces of Belarusian politics versus an old, tired, and, one might even say, moldy dictator. Instead, Lukashenko offered his own game: a wise, experienced, battle-hardened leader courageously rescues the Belarusian state from the terrible fate prepared for it by insidious and evil adversaries.

"To do this, Alexander Grigorievich [Lukashenko] first had to choose a fresh face for the role of the adversary. Previously, the West was the constant 'treacherous snake' in Lukashenko's show. But even the most successful plot device [wears thin]... into a worn-out cliché. This left the Belarus president with only one option for further action – to demonize Russia and begin promoting the [notion] of the Kremlin conspiracy. Thus, if protests break out after the announcement of the August 9 election results, they can be attributed to the 'hand of Moscow,' and all 'manifestations of national betrayal' can be harshly suppressed.

"I am sure that at the same time Alexander Lukashenko is in no way striving for a complete and final break with Russia. His goal is completely different: to humiliate Moscow and elevate himself, and to present the Russian leadership as a bunch of small and not very successful intriguers and [himself] as a great, successful, and generous statesman on an international scale. And Alexander Grigorievich certainly intends to extract impressive 'compensation' from the Kremlin for letting the scandal slide. The game is understandable, even somewhat logical. But it is still one of brinksmanship, and perhaps even beyond that.

"Quarreling and causing scandals with Moscow over economic issues is one thing. Accusing Russia of trying to organize, if not a coup d'état in Belarus, then mass riots, is something completely different. This will not be forgotten. It will leave a scar and a nick – even if the current particular conflict is resolved to mutual satisfaction.

"Another circumstance scares me: With all its logic, Lukashenko's political maneuvers are becoming ever more extravagant and riskier. Even before the last scandal, Russia-Belarus relations, while preserving their external 'union' shell, began to change internally. Now this process will accelerate even further.

"Isn't this too high a price for Lukashenko to pay to be able to win reelection?"[18]


Mikhail Rostovsky (Source: Ria.ru)

Kommersant Columnist Drize: 'We Are No Longer Allies'

If Rostovsky expressed both anger and foreboding, he still held back on what conclusions Russia should draw from the affair. However, Dmitry Drize, a featured Kommersant columnist, took things one step further and argued that Lukashenko was losing his grip and becoming a liability for Russia. He wrote:

"The situation in Belarus is gradually becoming increasingly unpredictable. The closer we get to the elections, the greater the likelihood of new unpleasant surprises. We cannot exclude the disclosure of new conspiracies, the identification of terrorist and other cells...

"Rumors upon rumors – all of this occurs periodically. However, in a closed society, the stability of the entire power structure – and even more so before elections – directly depends on the leader's health, and, as a result, on his ability to make adequate decisions."

Arriving at a radical conclusion, Drize continued: "It looks like we are no longer allies. At least personally, it is very difficult to deal with Alexander Grigorievich. It was not easy before, but now it is difficult to imagine how to build further relationships. The conclusion suggests itself: Lukashenko is now much worse for Russia than even the most pro-West opposition leader. In the last year or two, they tried to educate him, and even severely pressured him by depriving him of income. The end result was that he simply up and declared Russia to be his main enemy. And he is trying to proclaim himself the main defender of the West against the claims of the former empire.

"Meanwhile, opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is assembling rallies numbering in the thousands. According to various sources, up to 60,000 people gathered in Minsk last Thursday...

"Lukashenko's trouble is that he cannot leave, for obvious reasons. Therefore, this is only the beginning. The worst is yet to come."[19]


Dmitry Drize (Source: Kommersant.ru)

 

[1] Tass.com, August 1, 2020.

[2] Themoscowtimes.com, July 31, 2020.

[3] Zavtra.ru, July 30, 2020.

[4] Vesti.ru, August 1, 2020.

[5] Vesti.ru, August 1, 2020.

[6] Irishtimes.com, July 30, 2020.

[7] Vz.ru, August 1, 2020.

[8] Regnum.ru, August 1, 2020.

[9] Vz.ru, August 2, 2020.

[10] Lenta.ru, August 6, 2020.

[11] Rbc.ru, August 6, 2020.

[12] Vz.ru, August 1, 2020.

[13] Tass.com, July 30, 2020.

[14] Tass.ru, July 30.

[15] Ria.ru, August 4, 2020.

[16] Tass.com, July 30, 2020.

[17] Mk.ru, July 30. 2020.

[18] Mk.ru, July 30. 2020.

[19] Kommersant.ru, August 3, 2020.

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