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Arrest of 33 ‘Russian mercenaries’ in Belarus may have been orchestrated by Ukrainian intelligence – newspaper investigation

Arrest of 33 ‘Russian mercenaries’ in Belarus may have been orchestrated by Ukrainian intelligence – newspaper investigation
The paper trail behind 33 Russian citizens who were arrested in Belarus last week, and labelled mercenaries hired to destabilize the country, has been traced to Ukraine and could be a provocation by its intelligence services.

That’s according to investigative journalist Aleksandr Kots of Moscow newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, who is known to have good sources in the Russian military.

Last week, Belarus detained the Russians, described as a group of hired guns sent to orchestrate turmoil and torpedo the upcoming presidential election. The Russian citizens were named as members of Wagner, a Russian private military company (PMC) accused in the West of supplying fighters throughout the world in alignment with Moscow’s foreign policy goals.

The arrests may have been the result of a clandestine operation by Ukrainian intelligence, Kots revealed. The men involved have backgrounds as security contractors. The reporter says the recruitment was done under false pretenses and involved a Ukrainian tour operator.

According to Kots, the suspected frame-up started with a man who claimed to be seeking guards for protecting oil industry sites in Syria. He used a phone number that appeared to be located in the Middle Eastern nation, but was actually untraceable. The recruiter introduced himself as Sergey, had intimate knowledge of the PMC industry, and was interested in as many as 90 fighters.

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In May, another man posing as a security official of Russian oil giant Rosneft joined the scheme and suggested boosting the number of recruits to 180. Next month, the fake Rosneft boss told the hires that ‘Sergey’ had been killed in action and that the company wanted to send them to Venezuela to work as guards there.

The fighters were instructed to travel to Minsk in four separate groups and to be prepared to move on to Venezuela. The first platoon arrived in Belarus on July 24 and was initially supposed to fly the next day to Istanbul, then switch to a flight to Havana and ultimately reach Caracas.

Here is where the Ukrainian connection comes into play, according to the newspaper. The tickets for the group had been booked by a travel agency located in Ukraine, according to information that Kots received from Turkish Airlines. He traced the contact information provided by the airline to a firm in Kiev that just opened in January.

The July 25 booking was canceled shortly before the men traveled to Belarus and their departure to Turkey was rescheduled to July 30. The contractors were temporarily housed at a camp site near Minsk and instructed to destroy their copies of the original tickets – which, of course, were evidence of why they were in Belarus. A day before the expected flight to Istanbul, Belarusian authorities arrested them.

Kots said yet another Ukrainian firm, also registered in January, was used to buy tickets for the second group of contractors. He named several other people and aliases involved in the scheme and provided details of what had happened to them. The journalist believes that the entire set-up was orchestrated by Ukraine’s successor to the KGB, the SBU, which then allegedly tipped off its Belarusian counterpart (still known as the KGB) about the ‘Russian mercenaries’, portraying them as a threat to Minsk.

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“It seems the SBU intended to hit three targets with one shot: the ‘omnipresent, horrifying and terrifying; PMC ‘Wagner’, then ricochet into Rosneft, one of [the] biggest Russian companies, and most importantly hurt the relationship between Russia and Belarus,” Kots explained.

Kiev is seeking the extradition of some of the men held by Belarus, claiming they committed crimes in Ukraine. It claims that a number of the contractors previously fought on the side of the rebel forces in Donbass. Ukrainian authorities consider militants involved in the country’s six-year civil war to be terrorists.

The controversy has flared up ahead of this week’s election in Belarus, where long-time President Alexander Lukashenko is seeking a sixth term in office. During the tense campaign, he has repeatedly claimed that foreign forces have conspired with his opponents to oust him through a campaign of mass protests. Lukashenko has accused both Russians and Americans of interference.

One thing Kots doesn’t address is the plausibility of whether you could assemble a force of close to 200 Russian PMC contractors without them understanding who they were working for. That said, Ukraine’s SBU has a history of organizing elaborate schemes which tend to blow up in its face. For instance, in May 2018, it orchestrated the fake murder of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, who turned up alive a few days later.

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