Group of fighters belonging to a foreign private military company arrested near Minsk. Photo: Belarus-1 (TV-screenshot)
In late July, Belarusian law enforcers arrested 33 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group on their territory. The goal of their stay in Belarus was unclear. Ukraine wanted Belarus to hand over 28 of them since they fought against Ukraine in the Ukrainian region of the Donbas. All of them, except one Belarusian citizen, were handed over to Russia.
Several reputable Ukrainian media outlets, citing their sources in various law enforcement agencies, said that it was a Ukrainian false flag operation to bring the suspected criminals to Kyiv and it failed due to the information being leaked to Russia either by President Zelenskyy, his office’s chief Yermak or other briefed officials.
The officials and Ukrainian secret services deny that the operation was even planned while Parliament – the Verkhovna Rada – is going to consider setting up a temporary investigative commission to establish the truth.
On 29 July reports came from Belarus that the country’s secret service KGB arrested 33 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner private military company who had allegedly come to destabilize the situation during the 9 August presidential elections. Law enforcers were allegedly searching the country for 170 other mercenaries said to belong to the group of 200 fighters.
- Read more: Russian Wagner mercenaries arrested in Belarus: ‘little green men’ scenario, fighters in transit, or other?
Ukraine asked Belarus to extradite 28 of the 33 detainees for their suspected participation in the fighting in the Donbas against the Ukrainian army.
However, not only had Belarus ignored the Ukrainian request, it hadn’t even officially brought any charges against the detainees. Moreover, two weeks later, 32 of the 33 detainees returned to Russia. And the 33rd mercenary remained in Belarus because he was a Belarusian citizen.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky criticized the decision of official Belarus and stated that “the consequences of this decision will be tragic.”
Most of the mercenaries previously were members of the Russian organization known as the private military company (PMC) Wagner that is not officially registered in Russia.
And the PMC Wagner not only acts as guns-for-hire to secure valuable assets or VIPs abroad; its mercenaries often participate in the Russian-run conflicts across the world as an auxiliary force for the Russian military.
Therefore, it is believed to be a unit of the Russian Defense Ministry in disguise.
The “Wagnerians” fought against Ukraine in the Donbas at the turn of 2015. Later the mercenaries of the group were sent to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad. Finally, Russia deployed “Wagner” mercenaries in several African countries and Venezuela.
- Read also: New footage shows Russian PMC Wagner involved in crucial 2015 Debaltseve battle in Ukraine
A week after the detainment of the 33 Russian mercenaries in Belarus, the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda stated that the arrest “turned out to be a provocation of the Ukrainian special services” referring to an anonymous source in the Russian secret services.
The source told the Russian media that the recruitment started as many phone calls to former “Wagner militants” with an offer to work “securing oil facilities in Syria.” One of the “veterans of hostilities in Donbas” Artem Milyaev (call sign “Shaman”), as per the newspaper, volunteered to help find a group of 180 people for the job. Later the destination was changed to Venezuela. Four units of the mercenaries were set to head to Minsk in July and August, in order to fly from there along the route Istanbul-Havana-Caracas.
Komsomolskaya Pravda says, “it turned out that all air tickets were purchased in Ukraine” and before departure from, on July 25, “Shaman” was told about the flight cancellation and received instructions to destroy the old tickets. Days later, Belarusian KGBists arrested the Russians.
Later on 18 August, two Ukrainian online newspapers backed what initially was the Russian narrative on the Ukrainian involvement in luring out the mercenaries from Russia to trap them in Ukraine. What is more, the Ukrainian journalists stated that it was the Presidential Office that disrupted a year-long large-scale special operation.
Yuriy Butusov, the editor-in-chief of the website Censor.Net, urged the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) to open an investigation against President Zelenskyy and his close circle under high treason charges. He also called on the Verkhovna Rada to create an investigative commission for probing into the involvement of Zelenskyy and his close associates into an alleged leak of information that disrupted a top-secret operation conducted jointly by the SBU and the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense (MD’s MID) to detain the Russian suspects.
Zelenskyy dismissed Vasyl Burba, head of MD’s MID. And Butusov states that the reason for the dismissal was that Mr. Burba demanded a polygraph test for the head of the Office of President Andriy Yermak and the First Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Ruslan Demchenko.
“Thus, with this dismissal, the President of Ukraine hid high-ranking officials from going through a check and [from being suspects in] a criminal case,” Yuriy Butusov believes.
Ukrayinska Pravda added that the group of suspects included those who could have been involved in the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing MH17, the Ukrainian aircraft IL-76 near Luhansk airport, and the AN-26 near Luhansk city. The group of 33 included 28 militants that were meant to be detained with 9 Ukrainian citizens among them.
Ukrayinska Pravda provided more details on the planning and the course of the failed special operation, citing their undisclosed sources.
The plan was to bring the group from Moscow to Minsk Airport on 24 July and, without a stay in Belarus, fly them to Istanbul on 25 July. The further intention was to land the plane in one of the Ukrainian airports due to a sudden fake disease of a passenger who would have been an SBU agent. Under the guise of paramedics, a group of special forces would have entered the plane to detain the Wagnerians.
On July 24, SBU Deputy Chief Ruslan Baranetsky and MD’s MID Chief Vasyl Burba informed the President’s Office on the final stage of the operation. The listeners at the briefing were President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Head of the Office Andriy Yermak, First Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Chairman of the Intelligence Committee Ruslan Demchenko, Deputy Chairman of the Defense Committee Roman Mashovets, Secretary of the President Maria Levchenko.
Ukrayinska Pravda says that Ukrainian intelligence operatives suspect that information was leaked to Russia after the briefing resulting in the detention of mercenaries in Minsk and their subsequent transfer to Russia.
On 25 July, 33 Wagner mercenaries who booked the flight did not show up to depart. They settled in one of the Minsk recreational compounds with an order to wait for a new departure date, scheduled for 30 July. However, on the eve of the flight, on July 29, the special services of Belarus detained the whole group.
On 3 August, Zelenskyy convened another meeting where Intelligence Chief Burba said that the operation failed because of betrayal. Burba demanded to start checking everyone who knew about the operation. In particular, he wanted himself, Yermak, Demchenko, and Mashtsov to be checked on a polygraph.
Zelenskyy didn’t order any checks and didn’t initiate an investigation into the failure. Moreover, later he fired Burba to appoint a new head of the intelligence agency, and SBU deputy head Baranetskyi is on “indefinite leave.”
Head of the Presidential Office Yermak, special services, and President Zelenskyy deny that such an operation was in progress and failed.
Yermak commented by saying,
”This looks like a well-thought-out and planned disinformation campaign. And, surprisingly, some Ukrainian citizens are publicly disseminating this version of events.
It can be assumed that some internal forces also decided to use this disinformation campaign against Ukraine for their own purposes before the [upcoming local] elections. And maybe someone really wants to disrupt the ceasefire in the Donbas, which has been going on since 27 July, and during this time we have not lost a single Ukrainian soldier in the fighting [there were at least 7 fatalities officially reported as “non-combat” ones, – Ed].”
Meanwhile, the SBU called information on its participation in the operation “a Russian fake” and called “not to spread rumors in favor of an unfriendly state.” The newly-appointed head of the Main Intelligence Directorate Kirill Budanov made a similar statement. And Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service stated that the report on the Ukrainian failed attempt to lure the Wagner mercenaries to Ukraine is a “special information operation” of “Russian origin.”
President Zelenskyy told Radio Svoboda that he didn’t hear about any special operation being compromised and said,
“It’s delusional. I read about it. It is unfortunate that some media outlets reprinted Komsomolskaya Pravda (I believe the Russian one) and made a sensation in Ukraine.”
In response to a clarifying question whether the operation was planned, Zelensky asked,
“Why do you ask such a provocative question? Why are you telling the President of Ukraine now that the operation was planned?”
On 18 July Ukrainian journalist Yanina Sokolova published an apparently leaked video on her Youtube channel that allegedly shows “job interviews” with three of the mercenaries conducted by a Ukrainian operative, in which the “Wagnerians” tell about their involvement in military actions against Ukraine in the Donbas. The video is made in the style of other phone calls posted earlier by the SBU, containing the names of interlocutors, hard captions for the conversations, additional photos, and text comments on the matters mentioned in the calls.
More details and documents emerged in an interview with an unnamed “direct participant of the special operation who was one of its coordinators” by investigative journalist Liubov Velychko published on the website mind.ua.
The article contains four more videos of the fake “job interviews” of Wagner mercenaries.
The journalist also shared on her Google Drive the electronic tickets of the Minsk-Istanbul flight of 23 mercenaries and multiple photographs of documents of 22 of them. She stated that the materials she shared came from the Main Intelligence Directorate.
In the interview, the anonymous MD’s MID operative suggested that the special operation started last summer according to the dates of the files handed over to his agency from the SBU. In total, the operation involved some ten operatives at the lowest level. With top brass in the Intelligence Directorate and the SBU and the management of the President’s Office the number of those who could have known about the operation before its active stage was about 20.
“There is no direct evidence that these people pushed the levers, pressed the buttons [of the BUK]. But they were very close to the BUK, which means that a right dialogue with them could have led to them telling something interesting,” the operative says.
Out of 28 people of interest, 15 had skills of using the MANPAD Igla.
“All downed [Ukrainian] military aircraft (IL-76, An-26, and all others) or any downing of an airplane or helicopter carrying our [Ukrainian] military personnel, was their (those mercenaries’, – Ed) doing.”
The video shows the celebration of shooting down a Ukrainian fighter jet in the Donbas back in 2014, and it features among others the Russian mercenary Denis Kharitonov, who was among those “Wagnerians” whom the SBU was going to detain.
Replying to the question why the SBU has been denying the very existence of this special operation, he said,
“It is difficult to answer, but the instruction to destroy materials has been received. And it will be done soon. And it looks just like a banal betrayal.
Commenting on why Zelenskyy was silent about the situation (the interview probably took place before 20 August when Zelenskyy came up with his denial, – Ed), the intelligence operative said,
“If you want to hear my personal opinion, he probably did not understand the seriousness of all these matters in time.”
Meanwhile, legislator Geo Leros from the pro-President faction Servant of the People wrote a Facebook post in which he states that his colleagues in the faction are trying to disrupt the voting on establishing a temporary investigative commission (TSK) by the Parliament for probing into the failed special operation.
“The bill [on establishing the commission] was already registered last week, but I was told that the leadership of the Servant of the People faction refuses to nominate their candidates for the commission and, following the instructions of the President’s Office, it is going to abstain from voting for the creation of the TSK, which once again confirms the Office’s involvement in botching the special operation. because if they had nothing to hide, they would have proved without hesitation that this is a ‘boondoggle’,” wrote Leros.
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