Russia is alleged to use a secretive paramilitary group known as Wagner to represent Russian national interests in conflict zones, particularly in Ukraine and Syria, according to security experts.
Belarus, whose closest ally is neighbouring Russia, is now saying that the Wagner group sent forces to Minsk to conduct a terrorist attack to destabilize the country ahead of its presidential election next week.
It is a weighty claim by Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking re-election to a sixth consecutive term on August 9, has relied on vast support from Russia during his quarter-century in power.
In a visible rift in bilateral relations, Lukashenko earlier this year suggested that Russia was threatening Belarus’ independence by seeking to absorb the state through a decades-old union agreement between the countries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, shrugged off Belarus’ claims against Wagner on Thursday, saying that such a private military company cannot exist in accordance with Russian law.
“We hope that we will receive comprehensive information about what happened,” Peskov said in comments carried by Russian state news agency TASS.
An expert on Russian security forces, Mark Galeotti, has described Wagner as a “central element of the Kremlin’s geopolitical adventurism, whether in Ukraine or, even more clearly, Syria,” according to a commentary published on the Britain-based internet platform openDemocracy.
“Part of the reason for outsourcing ground fighting to Wagner, however thin the fiction that it was a mercenary rather than government force, was precisely so that the Russian government would not have to report casualties,” Galeotti said.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that several of the detained Russians had participated in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russia has long denied direct involvement in that conflict.