Belarus’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, 65, who is seeking a sixth term in office in the 9 August vote, has repeatedly accused Russia of trying to force Belarus to abandon its post-Soviet independence. Throughout his 26-year rule, Lukashenko has relied on Russian subsidies and political support but has fiercely resisted Moscow’s efforts to gain control over the country’s economic assets.
The arrest of dozens of Russians accused of planning to destabilise Belarus during the election campaign pushes political tensions between the countries to a new high. Some observers see the move as a campaign stunt by Lukashenko.
The Belarus state news agency, BelTA, said 32 members of Russia’s Wagner private military company had been detained overnight at a sanitarium outside Minsk by a Swat team from the Belarusian state security committee, still known by its Soviet-era name, KGB. Another person was detained in the country’s south, said BelTA, which published a list of the detained Russians.
Yulia Goncharova, the spokeswoman for Belarus’s top investigative agency, the Investigative Committee, confirmed the detentions but did not comment further.
Lukashenko called a meeting of his security council and instructed the KGB chief to ask Russia for an official explanation. “It’s necessary to immediately ask the relevant Russian structures to explain what’s going on,” he said.
The Russian embassy in Belarus had no immediate comment on the report, saying it had not received official information about the detentions from the Belarusian authorities.
BelTA said that Belarusian law enforcement agencies were acting on a tip that more than 200 militants had arrived in Belarus on a mission to destabilise the country during the election campaign.
Alexander Alesin, an independent Minsk-based military expert, said that Belarus had long 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.”
The Wagner company, linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who has been indicted by the US for meddling in the 2016 presidential election, has allegedly deployed hundreds of military contractors to Syria and Libya.
Alesin said the detentions appear to be part of Lukashenko’s efforts to mobilise support before the vote.
“The authorities are using Wagner members to scare people before the vote by inventing a thriller about Russian militants,” Alesin said. “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.”