Putin says US and Ukrainian intelligence ‘lured’ Russian mercenaries into Belarus

Belarus KGBRussian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview that a group of Russian paramilitary contractors, who were arrested in Belarus last month, were lured there as part of a joint American-Ukrainian spy operation. On July 29, Belarussian secret services announced the arrest of 33 Russian citizens, who were employees of Wagner Group, a private Russian military company that some believe operates as a private paramilitary wing of the Russian Armed Forces.

The Investigative Committee, Belarus’ primary investigating authority, determined that the 33 had entered the country as part of a 200-strong group of Russians working for Wagner, in order to destabilize the country in the run-up to the presidential election. The election resulted in the return to office of Belarus’ authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, for a record sixth term. According to Belarussian state television, the 33 Russians were found in possession of Sudanese currency and a Sudanese smartphone card. Sudan is believed to be one of Wagner Group’s most active areas of operation, and in the past the company has used Belarus as a transit center from which it coordinates its operations in the African continent.

On Thursday, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the 33 Russians were arrested as part of a joint American-Ukrainian intelligence operation, which lured the Wagner employees into Belarus. Speaking to state-owned Rossiya 24 television, Putin said the alleged operation was “carried out jointly by Ukrainian and American special services. The Russians, he said, had been hired “for absolutely legal work in Latin America and the Middle East” by an employer who “dragged them into Belarus”. The men were then “presented as a ‘strike force’ to destabilize [Belarus] during the presidential campaign”, said the Russian strongman.

Putin’s statement follows reports earlier this month in the Russian media, which claim that the 33 Russians were given forged passports as part of the alleged joint American-Ukrainian operation, in order to enable them to leave Russia undetected. However, neither the Russian media nor the Russian leader have provided evidence for these claims. Meanwhile Belarus expelled 32 of the 33 Russians a few days following their arrest. One remains in prison in the Belarussian capital Minsk.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 August 2020 | Permalink

Belarus arrests 33 Russians, accuses Kremlin of trying to subvert upcoming elections

Belarus KGBBelarussian secret services announced on Wednesday the arrest of 33 Russian citizens, who are allegedly members of a Kremlin-backed private military firm. The government of Belarus accuses the Russians of trying to subvert next month’s presidential elections on behalf of Moscow. The 33 Russians were charged with terrorism against the state on Thursday. They are allegedly employees of Wagner Group, a private Russian military company that some believe is in reality a private paramilitary wing of the Russian Armed Forces. However, the Kremlin has denied these accusations and says it has no connections with Wagner.

On Wednesday the state-owned Belarus 1 television channel aired footage of the 33 Russians being placed under arrest by the Belarussian State Security Committee (KGB). The arrests were later confirmed by Andrey Rawkow, secretary of the Security Council of Belarus, an interdepartmental body that supervises national security operations in the country. Rankow said the Investigative Committee, Belarus’ primary investigating authority, had determined that the 33 had entered the country as part of a 200-strong group of Russians working for Wagner, in order to “destabilize the situation during the election campaign”.

Rankow was referring to the upcoming presidential elections of August 9, in which the country’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, will be seeking a sixth term in office. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine in 1991, Lukashenko has ruled the country with an iron fist. This time, however, partly because of the growing coronavirus crisis, his leadership is in dispute more than ever before and opposition protests have gripped the country in recent months.

Meanwhile, the close relationship between Minsk and Moscow has suffered numerous setbacks since 2018, as Russia’s economic struggles have forced the Kremlin to curtail its financial outreach to Belarus. There have been differences between the two countries over the price of energy that Belarus imports from Russia each year. Sensing his faltering support among the population, which is broadly mistrustful of Moscow, Lukashenko has campaigned on a largely anti-Russian ticket this time around, hoping to attract independent voters.

According to Belarussian state television, the 33 Russians were found in possession of Sudanese currency and a Sudanese smartphone card. Sudan is one of the Wagner Group’s most active areas of operation, according to some observers, and in the past the company has used Belarus as a transit center from which it coordinates its operations in the African continent. There were also reports in the state-owned Belarussian media that the 33 Russians were connected with the jailed husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a leading opposition presidential candidate. Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, is a blogger with substantial social-media following among younger voters. Some now suspect that the government will use this opportunity to bar Tsikhanouskaya from running for office.

Late on Wednesday, Belarus’ state-owned Belta news agency published the names and birth dates of all 33 Russian suspects. Soon afterwards, the government of Ukraine said its intelligence agency, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), had asked it to file extradition requests for the 33 Russians, who are believed to have worked with separatists in eastern Ukraine in recent years.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 July 2020 | Permalink

Russia flew unmarked military aircraft to Libya to evacuate mercenaries, US claims

Libyan National Army LibyaThe United States has alleged that the Russian military flew over a dozen unmarked aircraft to Libya, in an attempt to provide air support for Russian mercenaries who are fighting in Tripoli. If true, this development marks a major escalation of Russia’s military intervention in the Libyan civil war.

The war has been raging in Libya since 2011, when a popular uprising backed by the West and its allies led to the demise of the country’s dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Much of the east of the country is controlled by the United States-backed Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Russia also backs the LNA and is vying with the United States for influence among Haftar’s commanders and troops. The LNA is fighting against the United Nations-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), which is supported by Qatar and Turkey.

On Tuesday, the Africa Command of the United States Department of Defense alleged that Russian pilots had flown military planes to Jufra, an LNA stronghold. The Americans claimed that the jets had been repainted in Syria to hide their Russian Federation insignia, before being flown first to Tobruk, in Libya’s east, and from there to Jufra. According to the Pentagon, the Russian planes were flown to Libya in order to provide air support to over 1,000 Russian mercenaries who are fighting alongside the LNA.

The mercenaries reportedly belong to the PMC Wagner (also known as the Wagner Group), a Russian security contractor with presence on the ground in Syria, eastern Ukraine, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere. Western officials allege that Russian private contractor firms like Wagner could not operate without permission from the Kremlin. According to recent reports, Wagner personnel have been participating in the LNA’s year-long effort to take Tripoli from the hands of the GNA and by doing so put an end to the Libyan civil war. But the offensive has not been going well in recent days, and Wagner forces were reportedly pushed back by Turkish- and Qatari-supported GNA troops.

The US Pentagon alleged that Moscow sent the Russian military aircraft to Libya in order to “provide close air support and offensive fires for the Wagner Group PMC that is supporting the LNA’s fight”. Other commentators have argued that the main purpose of the mission was to reach the outskirts of Tripoli and airlift the Russian mercenaries to safety. But Ahmed Mismari, a spokesman for the LNA, rejected reports of the arrival of Russian military aircraft to Libya as “media rumors and lies”. He said that all aircraft used by the LNA were “repaired […] old Libyan jets”. The Russian military has not commented on the allegations by the US Pentagon.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 May 2020 | Permalink

New report details growing presence of Russian private security firms in Africa

Central African Republic RussiaA new report by the American news network CNN has shed new light into the little-researched subject of Russian-owned private military and security operations in Africa. CNN said the report took a month to complete. It claims that a Russian tycoon by the name of Yevgeny Prigozhin has been instrumental in the growth of Russian private security operations in the continent. Prigozhin is one of the closest confidantes of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The United States accuses him of helping fund the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company based in Saint Petersburg, which allegedly participated in the Kremlin’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election. CNN claims that Prigozhin is also connected with PMC Wagner, a Russian security contractor with presence on the ground in Syria and eastern Ukraine. Western officials allege that firms like Wagner could not operate without permission from the Kremlin.

According to the CNN report Prigozhin turned to African countries like Sudan, Libya and the Central African Republic in order to make up for his financial losses in Syria and Ukraine. He allegedly has a role in many of Russia’s 20 military agreements with African states where he provides security and weapons training on behalf of Moscow. In return, his group of companies, headed by a firm called Concord, receives exploration permits and the rights to exploit precious metals found throughout Africa, according to CNN. The network sent correspondents to the Central African Republic where they found that a radio station and a major military training base are run by a group of 250 Russian contractors. None of them will say who pays them, according to CNN, and at least one of them claims to be a “security adviser” for Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Most of the Russians operate out of Palais de Berengo, a dilapidated presidential palace located 30 miles south of the capital Bangui, which used to belong to the country’s late dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa. At a nearby mining site there are now hundreds of locals who work for the Russians, said CNN.

The CNN report also notes that last year three Russian journalists, Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal, were ambushed and executed near Sibut in the central region of the country, allegedly “by men wearing turbans and speaking Arabic after refusing to surrender their vehicle and equipment”. They were in the Central African Republic to research the presence of Russian private security firms. Their trip was funded by the Center for Investigation, a London-based foundation owned by the Russian exiled billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. No one has been arrested or charged for the killings of the three Russian journalists. Central African Republic authorities told CNN that “investigations were continuing” into the matter.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 August 2019 | Permalink