More than a half a dozen of the 33 alleged Russian mercenaries apprehended in Belarus on July 29 took part in fighting on the Russian side of the ongoing, bloody war in eastern Ukraine.
After a hastily organized national security meeting the same day, the Belarusian national security chief, Andrey Rakou, told reporters that at least 14 alleged members of the Kremlin-linked Vagner private military contractor had either fought or served in some capacity in the Donbas, where a war has raged for six years between Ukrainian forces and combatants supplied by and under the command and control of Russia, killing more than 13,200 people and displacing nearly 1.5 million more.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) the following day told BBC Ukraine that it would seek extradition of the combatants who fought against Kyiv. Acting Ukrainian Ambassador to Belarus Petro Vrublevskyi said on Facebook that he was summoned by the host country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry to provide information on the detained alleged mercenaries, including any crimes they may have committed in Ukraine.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said at the urgent national security meeting that the mercenaries were preparing “terrorist acts” ahead of the August 9 presidential election, while accusing Moscow of deploying them.
“I am already seeing reaction by the Russians. They are already making excuses, saying things like we invited them here ourselves,” Mr. Lukashenka said. “It is obvious: justifications must be made for dirty intentions.”
The Kremlin denied any unlawful actions.
Russia “does not know anything” about why the group of 33 Russian nationals had been detained in Belarus, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, as cited by German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
“Insinuations have appeared that some organizations from Russia are sending someone [to Belarus],” Mr. Peskov told reporters on July 30. “This is nothing but insinuations.”
Private military contractors are illegal in Russia, and Moscow doesn’t acknowledge their existence.
Thirty-two of the alleged soldiers of fortune first stayed at a Minsk hotel on July 25-26 before moving to a spa resort outside the Belarusian capital, where they were apprehended unarmed. One more purported mercenary was detained in the south of the country.
Video footage released by state media showed them entering the premises of the spa with duffel bags and three large containers in tow.
Among them were “snipers and experts in explosives and information technology,” national security chief Mr. Rakou said.
The Ukrainian Weekly found that 13 of the men are wanted on terrorism charges in Ukraine, according to a controversial website, Myrotvorets, that tracks combatants in eastern Ukraine.
They are: Andrey Bakunovich, Fedor Sergeev, Andrey Serdukov, Andrey Tokarev, Igor Shalomentsev, Renat Karimov, Aleksandr Rudenko, Denis Kharitonov, Tahir Bakhtigaraev, Sergey Sherbakov and Oleg Driga, Maksim Koshman and Gennady Fetisov.
Belarusian state media published all the names, dates of birth and Russian passports of the 33 detained men.
Some of the men fought in Sloviansk, the first city to have been militarily taken over by combined Russian-collaborationist forces in April 2014 in the two easternmost regions of Ukraine. Another fought in the infamous battle of Debaltseve in the Donetsk region that forced then-President Petro Poroshenko to the negotiating table with Russian President Vladimir Putin in early 2015.
Sniper Mr. Bakunovich also holds Belarusian citizenship, and Donbas native Mr. Fetisov allegedly also served in the now-defunct Berkut riot police during the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine.
A separate vetting of the list of detainees by the Russian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) said that 18 had served in some capacity in the Russian-Ukrainian war, based on their social media accounts, some of which are still active, and a search of Myrotvorets’s database.
Russian nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin, who has previously admitted to “killing many people” in the Donbas, acknowledged that two to three of those detained in Belarus were “former fighters from” a battalion in which he fought, according to a Bloomberg report.
Critics of Mr. Lukashenka, 65, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, say the detainment of the Russians was a political ploy to drain the momentum of the main opposition candidate, 37-year-old Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is the only presidential contender to have assembled mass crowds at rallies.
An examination of the footage taken when the men were detained showed they had Sudanese currency and phone cards depicting Sudan’s Khatmiyah Mosque, suggesting they were en route to Africa, where other Russian mercenaries are allegedly deployed.
Unlike Russia, Belarus during the coronavirus pandemic has refrained from imposing travel and physical distancing restrictions, keeping air travel open.
Mr. Rakou said that stricter border controls will be implemented and rallies will be closely policed.
Valery Karbalevich, author of an unauthorized biography of the Belarusian president, told RFE/RL that he believes the detainment of the alleged mercenaries was an excuse to clamp down on the political rallies as Mr. Lukashenka seeks a sixth term.
Since Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and subsequently invaded the Donbas, Mr. Lukashenka has grown wary of Moscow’s intentions for closer integration between Belarus and Russia.
Since then, he has freed a number of political prisoners and eased visa requirements for Westerners to enter the country of 9.4 million people.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Mr. Lukashenka in Minsk on February 1 in an effort to re-establish normal diplomatic ties with the country, which is economically dependent on Russia.
Vagner uses a Defense Ministry base in southern Russia complete with barracks that were built by a company associated with businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, according to Reuters and local media reports.
Known as “Putin’s chef” for his Kremlin catering contracts, he has denied any connection to the private military contractor. Mr. Prigozhin has been on a U.S. sanctions list since 2019 for his “attempted influence” of the 2018 mid-term elections through his Internet Research Agency based in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Internet Research Agency was also indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on charges of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
In addition to Ukraine, Vagner combatants have been known to fight in Syria, Libya and Africa.