The Russian connectionWhat Is Russia's Vagner Paramilitary Group and What Was It Doing in Belarus ahead of Vote?

By Irina Romaliiskaya Robert Coalson

Published 31 July 2020

The Vagner Group is one of the best-known of several Russian private paramilitary organizations which have come into being over the past decade. The organization is widely believed to be controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a longtime associate of Vladimir Putin who once served as the Russian president’s chef. Vagner’s operations have always been held in close secrecy, in part because mercenary activity is illegal under Russian law and in part because the group is widely believed to operate in close cooperation with Russian military intelligence.

When authorities in Belarus conducted a high-profile operation to detain some 33 suspected Russian mercenaries near Minsk on 29 July, officials were quick to connect the incident with the country’s August 9 presidential election.

The BelTA state news agency said the men — and perhaps dozens more still at large — were in Belarus to “destabilize the situation in the country ahead of the election.”

But most analysts see an even more complex scenario being played out, one in which Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has found a convenient opportunity to discredit and contain a growing opposition movement and to exert even stricter control over an election in which the authoritarian ruler is seeking a sixth term as president.

A hastily organized meeting of some members of Belarus’s Security Council on July 30 decided to impose stricter security measures at public events, a move that Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich said was aimed first of all at a planned opposition rally in Minsk set for 31 July.

Security checkpoints will be set up and everyone will be thoroughly searched by police, Karbalevich said in an interview with Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

This is all being done in order to sharply restrict the number of people attending the demonstration and to cut way back on the protest wave in general because the authorities are genuinely concerned about its scope,” he said.

This is a tactic in the election campaign that the authorities are using in order to cool the protest ardor,” he concluded.

A Clear Signal
Belarusian economist and political commentator Syarhey Chaly added that Lukashenka could try to connect the opposition to the supposed Russian plot in order to justify a crackdown.

In addition,” Chaly told Current Time, “it is a clear signal to the West that if something serious happens here along the lines of ‘Bloody Sunday’ [a violent crackdown by authorities against protests in the wake of the December 2010 presidential election] that they should keep in mind that [Lukashenka] isn’t just fighting against internal opposition, but against an attempted coup inspired by Russia.”

But this begs the question of what the arrested Russians were doing in Belarus in the first place.