There are many versions of what really happened to prompt the arrest of thirty-three Russians—allegedly mercenaries—outside the Belarusian capital Minsk. Whatever the truth, the incident is a greater blow to the trust between the two allies than any oil and gas dispute

Allegations that foreign fighters are present in the country come up regularly in Belarus’s public discourse, ahead of elections or amid protests. It’s a simple scheme that both makes protesters think twice about their safety before taking to the streets, and gives the authorities an excuse to use preventative force to protect people from terrorist attacks and provocations. 

But this time, the fighters turned out to be somewhat more real than usual. The thirty-three arrested Russians, according to all the available data from Minsk, Moscow, and Kiev, really do have a military background, and work for Russia’s infamous Wagner private military company.

Russia’s explanation is that the men were passing through Belarus on their way to perform a mission of guarding “energy infrastructure and resources abroad,” in an unspecified country in Latin America. Russia’s ambassador to Belarus, Dmitry Mezentsev, said they were meant to fly to Istanbul from Minsk on July 25, but missed their flight and remained in Belarus for several days.

Minsk, however, points out that judging by the time of their entry into the country, they were in plenty of time for their flight to Istanbul, and could also have flown there on any of the following days if they had missed their original flight. Instead of that, the men first checked in to a Minsk hotel, and then to a sanatorium—having reserved rooms in both places before their entry into Belarus. 

According to Belarusian investigators, the men aroused suspicion because of their military-style clothing, among other factors. Once arrested, the alleged mercenaries gave differing explanations of where they were going and why, including “to see the Saint Sophia cathedral” (Hagia Sophia)—an excuse painfully reminiscent of that given by the two Russians accused of the Salisbury poisonings in 2018. 

Given that Belarus is preparing for a presidential election on August 9, the Russians were suspected of planning acts of provocation at protest rallies, and were arrested on suspicion of plotting mass rioting. The security services said up to 200 mercenaries may have entered the country, and that new groups were preparing to enter from Russia.

There’s still not enough information to draw definitive conclusions, but there are problems with Minsk’s version of events, too. First, it would be the height of unprofessionalism for a group of mercenaries on a secret operation in a foreign country to check into the same hotel or sanatorium in one big group without acting out a cover story, and while wearing camouflage gear.

Second, Minsk would clearly have done more if it seriously believed it had intercepted the first phase of a hybrid attack on the country, with new groups of infiltrators waiting in the wings. Instead of declaring a state of emergency, the Belarusian authorities have started erecting barriers around opposition rallies. And instead of closing the border with Russia entirely, Belarus simply sent more border guards there.

It looks as though Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko doesn’t entirely believe that Moscow sent mercenaries to topple him. He hasn’t rushed to blame the Kremlin; has proposed a degree of leniency regarding the soldiers, since they were simply carrying out orders; and has called on Moscow to enter into a dialogue.

The transit story is less contradictory, but still leaves questions unanswered. If the advance bookings in both places of accommodation shown by Belarusian investigators are real, that’s suspicious behavior for transit passengers. Investigators also say that the Russians lied to the hotel staff, saying they were going to the airport when they checked out, but instead going to the sanatorium.

Finally, there’s the version that the whole thing was a secret deal: that Minsk borrowed some people from Moscow to arrest to give Lukashenko an excuse to turn the screws ahead of the election. But that would be a complex endeavor involving too many actors. Nor is it clear what Russia would gain from such games and scandals. In any case, there isn’t the necessary level of trust right now for the two sides to cook up such a scheme.

The arrest of the alleged Wagner soldiers made headlines around the world, but hasn’t changed Belarus’s domestic political agenda much. The authorities there have cried wolf too many times in the past before elections. 

The day after the arrests, the three women who have joined forces to run against Lukashenko—Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova, and Veronika Tsepkalo—still managed to get 60,000 people to turn out in Minsk: the biggest rally in Belarus since the 1990s. Apparently, the thought of another 170 mercenaries on the loose in the country wasn’t enough to convince opposition supporters to stay at home. 

In any case, Lukashenko’s opponents are critical of the stagnation in the country, not of his foreign policy, so portraying him as the defender of sovereignty won’t boost support for him. 

Even Western media, which can hardly be accused of pro-Moscow bias, hasn’t taken Minsk’s word for it. Nearly all international reporting has either hinted or concluded that the mercenaries weren’t there to destabilize Belarus, which suggests Western leaders don’t accept Minsk’s version either. 

Meanwhile, the damage to Belarus-Russia relations could be very serious. Whatever the truth, this incident cannot fail to exacerbate the main problem in the relationship between Minsk and Moscow: a protracted crisis of trust. This is the first time that that crisis has manifested itself so openly not just over energy or trade issues, but in the previously flawless cooperation between the two countries’ military and security services. 

If the security agencies of the two countries trusted one another, then upon discovering the soldiers outside Minsk, it would have been logical to pick up the phone and find out who they were and why they were there. But the Belarusian authorities had a different reaction, and received in response not an apology for the breakdown in communications, but a salvo of reproofs, not to mention insults from Russia’s ruling United Russia party, which called Lukashenko a “parasite” and “freeloader.”

From now on, Minsk and Moscow can increasingly expect uncoordinated and provocative actions from each other. Their weariness and suspicion of each other will mount further.

Consequently, it’s less and less likely that at a future critical moment of political tension in Belarus, the Kremlin will come to Lukashenko’s aid—especially if his opponents keep refusing to endorse the anti-Russian agenda that the president is increasingly claiming. 

  • Artyom Shraibman