Putin’s top ally accuses Russia of coup plot as vote nears

Aliaksandr Kudrytski and Henry Meyer

Belarus stepped up accusations against Russia of plotting to thwart longtime President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election next month, saying 33 detained Russian mercenaries had been planning terrorist acts.

Almost 170 Russian militants remain at large in Belarus, the head of the country’s Security Council Andrei Ravkov told reporters after a meeting Thursday with presidential candidates in the capital Minsk. Two other groups may be preparing to enter Belarus from Russia, Ravkov told the participants, according to one of them, Andrei Dmitriev.

In this file photo taken on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attend a ceremony in the village of Khoroshevo, Russia.

The dispute ahead of the Aug. 9 elections further inflames tensions between the former Soviet neighbors sparked by Lukashenko’s refusal to accept deeper integration with Moscow and his efforts to build ties to Western powers including the U.S., in a challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his backyard.

Russia has responded calmly so far to the latest allegations. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov described them as “nothing but insinuations,” and insisted the two countries remain the “closest partners,” in a conference call with reporters.

Lukashenko, once branded by the U.S. as presiding over “Europe’s last dictatorship,” is facing an unprecedented challenge to his 26-year rule from three opposition groups as he seeks a sixth presidential term. They’ve united behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who registered as a candidate after her husband, a political YouTube blogger who expected to run in the contest, was detained.

Opposition Rally

Thousands of Tikhanovskaya supporters gathered for a rally in a Minsk park late Thursday, after previous campaign events that drew large crowds. At least 25,000 had joined the event by 7 p.m., according to the Viasna human rights center in the city. Lukashenko ordered a tightening of restrictions on public gatherings after the Russians were detained.

“We came here because we want to live a better life, want our basic rights to be respected,” said Natalya, 34, a self-employed organizer of children’s events, who was attending with her husband Oleg, 36, and their twin toddler daughters. The couple declined to give their last name.

The Belarusian Investigative Committee linked the opposition movement to the mercenaries in a statement Thursday that accused Tikhanovskaya’s husband Sergei “and other persons” of plotting mass disturbances. The 33 Russians who belong to the Wagner military group had been held while planning to carry out such acts, according to the statement.

Wagner is controlled by Yegveny Prigozhin, an ally of Putin who has deployed his private army to hot spots around the world including Africa, the Middle East and Latin America in support of Kremlin policy. Lukashenko summoned an emergency meeting of his Security Council on Wednesday after law enforcement seized the mercenaries at a sanatorium near Minsk.

Ukraine, where Wagner took part in a Russia-backed uprising in the east of the country, will ask for the extradition of the detained militants, the State Security Service said.

For Lukashenko, an ex-collective farm boss who has ruled the nation of 9.4 million since 1994, the capture of the Russian group fits his narrative that Belarus faces an external threat, Minsk-based military analyst Yahor Lebiadok said by phone. The idea of the mercenaries “being sent here in order to destabilize the country is rather questionable, even if not completely impossible,” he said.

Missed Flight

The Russians were using Belarus as a transit hub for deployment elsewhere but missed their connecting flight, Russia’s ambassador to the country, Dmitry Mezentsev, said according to the Interfax news service. They worked for a private security company contracted to guard energy facilities in a third country and were on their way to Istanbul, he said.

The cooling relationship between Russia and Belarus, a strategic military and energy transit partner for Moscow, has put the U.S. in the awkward position of courting a strongman facing pro-democracy opponents. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo met Lukashenko in Minsk in February, the highest-ranking U.S. official to travel to Belarus in more than 25 years.

While Russia is keen to undermine Lukashenko and may welcome him emerging as a weakened figure if he resorts to mass repression to win the election, it still prefers to deal with a familiar counterpart, according to Gleb Pablovsky, a former Kremlin adviser.

“For Putin, Lukashenko’s disappearance from Minsk would be a nightmare,” Pavlovsky told Ekho Moskvy radio.