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Bellingcat finds Ukraine’s Wagner sting operation failed due to President’s Office interference

Screenshot from the Belarus’s state-run news agency Belta shows Belarusian KGB agents arresting the alleged Russian mercenaries
Bellingcat finds Ukraine’s Wagner sting operation failed due to President’s Office interference
The digital sleuths of Bellingcat have released the results of a year-long investigation into an arrest of 33 alleged mercenaries of the Wagner Russian private military company (PMC) in Belarus in July 2020 and the subsequent deportation of Russian nationals among them to Russia. In 2020, a number of materials were leaked to the Ukrainian press alleging that the detainment of Wagner mercenaries in Belarus was actually a failed sting operation of Ukrainian special services to lure the Russian mercenaries into Ukraine. Bellingcat confirms that it really was a Ukrainian sting operation and restores the timeline of the developments, concluding that a decision delay the operation coming from the President’s Office led to its failure.

In late July 2020, Belarusian state-run media Belta reported on the arrest of 33 private military contractors of the Russian PMC Wagner. According to Belta, those were part of a larger group of some 200 fighters present in Belarus for destabilization of the situation during the upcoming Belarusian presidential elections in early August 2020. The media published the list of the 33 detainees calling them all Russian nationals. Bellingcat points that a handful also had dual citizenship with Ukraine and Belarus.

Although Belarus initially accused Russia of meddling in the August election, the two countries appeared to reconcile with the return of the mercenaries to Russia and further cooperation in military and economic spheres.

Later developments showed that the detained Russian mercenaries appeared to have nothing to do with the Belarusian elections and expected Russian meddling in it, but they, unbeknownst to them, were apparently involved in a Ukrainian sting operation that had suddenly been cut short by the Belarusian special services.

“The political fallout from these events continues to be felt over a year later, drawing in the last two presidents of Ukraine and much of the country’s security, military, and intelligence services,” says Bellingcat.

Bellingcat has established that it really was an operation of the Ukrainian special services that started as early as 2018, led by Ukraine’s military intelligence service, GUR MOU, with support of the state security service, SBU. The Russian mercenaries believed they were hired by a Russian private military company for an operation in Venezuela.

However, this was a false-flag recruitment by Ukrainian special services who were planning on organizing a forced landing of the plane carrying the mercenaries during its transit over Ukrainian airspace and capturing all of them.

The digital sleuths compiled their timeline and the context of the events based on dozens of interviews with Ukrainian participants in the sting operation and with Russian mercenaries that were to be arrested.

In their interviews, the would-be Venezuela fighters revealed to fake employers incriminating information about the crimes they claimed to have committed in Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region.

Bellingcat found that some mercenaries said they had arrived in the Donbas in 2014 “under the cover of rebels,” others had said their presence in the east of Ukraine was the direct deployment of Russia’s regular army units. They also provided names of commanding officers and photos of their medals awarded by the Kremlin.

According to Bellingcat, Ukrainian political leadership saw this plan in June 2020 and approved it in early July.

However, a last-minute decision from the President’s Office to delay the operation in late July led to its failure – the mercenaries who remained in Belarus for much longer than it was initially planned, were detained by Belarusian special services before they could reach Ukraine to be captured there.

One reason for the delay could be that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had just reached an agreement with Russia for a ceasefire in the Donbas, and the operation could lead to a breakdown of the agreement, former GUR MOU operatives told Bellingcat.

But another version was also voiced by operatives interviewed by Bellingcat: allegedly, the operation could have been blown due to the prejudiced attitude of the President of Ukraine and his staff towards the then head of the Ukrainian intelligence service Vasyl Burba.

Two days later Belarus detained all the mercenaries who were waiting for the new date of their alleged departure to Venezuela.

Read the full report on the Bellingcat website.

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