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Belarus Says Russian Mercenaries Planned to Disrupt August Election

MOSCOW — Escalating a simmering feud with Russia, its neighbor and longtime ally, Belarus on Wednesday charged that more than 200 mercenaries from Russia, disguised as tourists, had infiltrated Belarus on a mission to disrupt its presidential election.

Reports of a Russian mercenary force in Belarus, which could not be independently confirmed, followed months of increasingly ill-tempered exchanges between Minsk and Moscow, close but fractious allies that used to be bound together by their shared wariness of the West, but are now intensely wary of each other.

The news reinforced a narrative promoted in recent weeks by President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, who has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years, that widespread public discontent stemmed from foreign meddling, not his own unpopularity.

Mr. Lukashenko has a long record of blaming foreigners for his troubles but has only recently turned his propaganda machine on Russia, rather than Western powers like the United States, previously his favorite target.

Belta, Belarus’s official news agency, published the names and birth dates of 32 detained Russian fighters whom it described as employees of Wagner Group, a mercenary recruiting company linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a longtime associate of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

The Russian embassy in Minsk said it had asked the Belarusian authorities about the reports of a mercenary force but had received no official information about any Russians being detained.

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Russia has long been Belarus’s closest ally and principal benefactor, and the two nations are bound together by language, similar political systems and a shared reverence for many aspects of the Soviet Union.

But relations have soured dramatically as President Putin has pushed Mr. Lukashenko to implement a long-stalled plan to form a “union state,” effectively a merger of the two countries in which Russia, with 15 times as many people as Belarus, would be very much the senior partner.

Mr. Lukashenko, who has a reputation for erratic behavior and wild claims, announced on Tuesday that he had been infected by the coronavirus but had fully recovered without treatment. That announcement was greeted with skepticism, as it played into his longstanding position that the pandemic poses no serious danger to public health and can be kept at bay by drinking vodka, riding tractors and playing ice hockey.

In June, Mr. Lukashenko had two would-be rival candidates in Belarus’s Aug. 9 presidential elections arrested on corruption charges, claiming that he had thwarted a plot to foment revolution by Russian interests.

On Wednesday, the government released video footage of a nighttime raid this week on a sanitarium near Minsk, where 32 Russian fighters were arrested; another one was arrested in a different part of the country. The video featured heavily armed officers from Belarus’s security service — still called, as in Soviet days, the K.G.B. — storming into guest rooms occupied by the alleged mercenaries. It showed a number of beefy Russians in handcuffs, one of them lying on the floor in boxer briefs, Russian passports and a stack of $100 bills.

But belongings seized in the raid also included bank notes and telephone cards from Sudan and texts written in Arabic, which suggested the arrested Russians may have been en route to or from North Africa, rather than on a mission targeting Belarus.

The arrested Russians, according to a report by Belta, aroused suspicion as soon as they arrived in Belarus because each man had three heavy suitcases, wore military-style clothing and behaved in ways “uncharacteristic for Russian tourists,” shunning alcohol and avoiding night clubs.

Wagner Group, the mercenary outfit accused of employing the men, has sent fighters, mostly veterans of Russia’s armed forces, to Syria, Libya, Sudan and various other countries. According to United States officials, it is controlled by Mr. Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” because of his success in winning catering contracts from the Russian military.

Credit…Pool photo by Alexei Druzhinin

He has been indicted in the United States over meddling in the 2016 American presidential election by another of his ventures, the troll farm in St. Petersburg formally known as the Internet Research Agency. He has repeatedly denied any links to Wagner or to interference in the U.S. election.

Zakhar Prilepin, a Russian writer who fought in eastern Ukraine in support of a separatist rebellion fomented and armed by Moscow, told Russian media on Wednesday that he recognized several of the arrested men shown by Belarusian television as veterans of his former unit in Donetsk, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian region that declared itself an independent, pro-Russian state in 2014.

While the men may have been in Belarus, he said, they were probably headed to a mission elsewhere. Similarly, a social media channel run by a Russian war correspondent and often used by Russian mercenaries said the arrested Russians were most likely passing through Belarus on their way to conflict zones in Africa where Wagner fighters have been heavily involved in combat operations.

President Lukashenko, however, painted Belarus as the target of the mercenary force and called an emergency meeting on Wednesday of his security council to discuss the Russian threat. Belta news agency quoted him as saying he had ordered the head of the Belarus K.G.B. to ask Russia “what is happening?”

Such talk, critics say, is an attempt at distraction, as Mr. Lukashenko faces growing domestic opposition. Riot police units have intervened repeatedly and brutally to halt street protests in Minsk and other cities across the country since the arrests in June of two popular would-be candidates. A third prospective candidate, Belarus’s former ambassador to Washington, fled to Russia last week to avoid arrest.

After the arrest of his strongest potential rival, Viktor Babariko, the former head of a Russian-owned bank, Mr. Lukashenko claimed that he had foiled a plot orchestrated from Moscow to overthrow his government. That claim was widely dismissed by independent observers as a clumsy attempt to rally Western support for his pre-election crackdown.

The news that alleged Russian mercenaries had been arrested broke just hours after Mr. Lukashenko visited a Belarus military base, where he boasted to a gathering of army and riot police officers of his work to rebuild the country’s security and defense apparatus after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Nobody gave us anything, and we owe nothing to anyone,” he told the officers in an apparent snub to Russia, which has provided weapons and training to Belarus for years.

Credit…Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA, via Shutterstock

Long adept at maneuvering between Russia and the West to extract political and economic favors, Mr. Lukashenko has increasingly tilted away from Moscow in recent months, particularly since a visit to Minsk in February by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

After that visit, the first by a secretary of state since the early 1990s, Washington appointed its first ambassador to Belarus in more than a decade and both countries pledged to improve their previously frozen relations.

Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting.