MINSK – The authoritarian leader of Belarus accused Russia of harboring “dirty intentions” Wednesday after his national intelligence agency detained more than 30 Russian private military contractors ahead of Belarus' presidential election.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking a sixth term in the Aug. 9 election, has repeatedly accused Russia of trying to force Belarus to abandon its post-Soviet independence. Throughout his 26 years of iron-fisted rule, Lukashenko has relied on subsidies and political support from Moscow but fiercely resisted Russia's efforts to gain control over Belarus' economic assets.
The arrest of dozens of Russians accused of planning to destabilize Belarus amid election campaigning pushes political tensions between the countries to a new high. Some observers see the move as a campaign stunt by the 65-year-old president.
State news agency BelTA said a SWAT team from the Belarusian State Security Committee, still known by its Soviet-era name KGB, detained 32 people from private Russian military firm Wagner overnight at a sanitarium outside the capital of Minsk.
Another person was detained in the country's south, reported BelTA, which published a list of the detained Russians.
Yulia Goncharova, the spokeswoman for Belarus’ top investigative agency, the Investigative Committee, confirmed the detentions but refrained from further comment.
Belarusian state television broadcast footage of the SWAT officers putting the handcuffed Russians wearing only shorts face down in their rooms.
The Russian Embassy in Belarus had no immediate comment, saying it hadn’t received official information about the detentions.
In televised remarks from a Security Council meeting, Belarusian KGB Chairman Valery Vakulchik reported to Lukashenko that the detainees were Wagner members.
The Belarusian president then chastised Russia for trying to cover up its “dirty intentions” and instructed his officials to ask Russia for an official explanation.
“It’s necessary to immediately ask the relevant Russian structures to explain what’s going on,” Lukashenko said.
The Wagner company, linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who was indicted in the United States for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, has allegedly deployed hundreds of military contractors to eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
Security Council secretary Andrei Ravkov noted that there were snipers and explosives experts among the detainees, and he said in view of that Belarusian authorities would strengthen security at campaign events. Controls on the border with Russia will also be tightened, he said.
Ravkov said that 14 of the detainees had fought on the side of Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. Belarus' Foreign Ministry will invite the Ukrainian ambassador to discuss the issue, he said.
BelTA said that Belarusian law enforcement agencies were acting on a tip that over 200 militants had arrived in Belarus on a mission to destabilize the country during the election campaign.
Alexander Alesin, an independent military expert based in Minsk, said that Belarus long has provided a transit corridor for sensitive Russian operations abroad.
“The Russians have used Belarus to deploy special troops to other countries for many years,” Alesin said. “The Belarusian security agencies knew all about it and until recently they offered help and assistance to the Russians.”
Alesin asserted that the detentions appear to be part of Lukashenko's efforts to mobilize support before the vote.
“The authorities are using Wagner members to scare people before the vote by inventing a thriller about Russian militants,” Alesin argued. “The footage of the detentions looks silly: If the 33 Wagner people were indeed planning to stage riots they wouldn’t have worn combat fatigues and T-shirts with the word ”Russia” and stayed all in one place.”
He added that the Belarusian leader may also have wanted to vent his anger with the Kremlin: "With the detentions, Lukashenko also wants to show Russia its place as relations with the Kremlin have worsened after Russia sharply cut its subsidies.”
The president is expected to easily win reelection on Aug. 9 despite a wave of opposition protests fueled by public fatigue with his rule and a painful economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. The World Bank has forecast that the Belarusian economy will shrink by at least 4% this year, the largest decline in a quarter-century.
Belarusian television reported that Belarus-born Russian political consultant Vitaly Shklyarov was also detained Wednesday. It charged that Shklyarov was helping to mobilize opposition supporters. In the past, Shklyarov worked as a political consultant in the United States and Russia.
Lukashenko, a former state farm director, has led Belarus since he became the the ex-Soviet nation's first president in July 1994. During that time, he has cracked down on dissent and free media in the country of 9.5 million people and extended his rule through elections that the West criticized as rigged.
Belarus election officials have barred the president’s two main challengers from appearing on the ballot.
One of the challengers, Viktor Babariko, the former head of a major Russia-controlled bank, has been jailed on money laundering and tax evasion charges.
Another, Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the United States and the founder of a thriving high-tech development park, was denied registration after authorities invalidated some of the signatures he had collected to qualify.
Tsepkalo fled to Russia with his children after receiving a warning that his arrest was imminent and the authorities were planning to strip him of his parental rights and take his children away.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of jailed opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, is the only opposition candidate to have been allowed on the ballot.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.