Updated: Aug 6, 2020
On July 30, 2020, members of Belarusian KGB, otherwise known as the State Security Committee of the Republic of Belarus, arrested 33 Russian citizens employed by the Wagner Group on charges of terrorism. In the days following the incident, Moscow and Minsk have exchanged increasingly hostile rhetoric. The sharpest escalation came on August 4, when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko forward deployed 3,000 troops to its border with Russia with the expressed purpose of deterring an invasion.
As previously mentioned, members of Belarusian KGB alongside an OMON Special Police Force unit arrested 33 Russian citizens in Zhdanovichi, a suburb of Minsk. Belarusian officials have identified these individuals as employees of the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization that has repeatedly been used to advance Moscow's foreign policy interests. Belarusian officials contend that Wagner's objective was the destabilization of the country ahead of elections of August 9, although law enforcement and prosecutors have failed to provide evidence supporting this supposition.
The Russian Federation was apparently caught off-guard by the arrests. Moscow, nor its representatives in Minsk, issued a statement until 24 hours after the incident. Russia's embassy in the Belarusian capital made clear two days later that the 33 men were simply transiting through Minsk while en-route to a third, unidentified state.
In the days following the arrest, Minsk and Moscow have exchanged increasingly hostile and aggressive rhetoric in public forums. Although Russia and Belarus are no longer allies, the arrests on July 30th mark a major break in the two states' relationship. This fact was reinforced on August 4, when armor and infantry transports belonging to the Belarusian military began deploying to locations near the Russo-Belarusian border.
On August 5, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy officially requested that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko authorize the extradition of 28 of the Wagner Group operatives for criminal prosecution. Nine of these men retain Ukrainian citizenship and all 28 fought against the Ukrainian government in the Donbas conflict, meaning these men would be tried as terrorists and traitors in Kyiv. According to sources in Ukraine and Belarus, Russian emissaries have strongly recommended such an action not be taken, as it would increase the probability of confrontation.
Although the Russian Federation may be influencing the Belarusian election through social media and information operations, it seems extremely unlikely that the Wagner operatives currently in confinement were complicit in such an operation. When captured, these men carried US and Sudanese currency, official Russian passports, and were dressed in Wagner uniforms. Given the fact that Russia's borders are sealed for non-essential travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, Belarus would be a logical leap-off point for a Wagner element to deploy from. The Russian embassy's story that the men were simply transiting through Minsk is further reinforced by the fact Eastern European companies operating in Sudan commonly utilize Wagner personnel for security support.
President Lukashenko's decision to move troops to the Russian border appears to be a major political stunt rather than national defense measure. After pouring through thousands of social media posts and hundreds of satellite images, The Intelligence Ledger has not been able to confirm a military mobilization on the part of the Russians. Even if Belarus truly faced a threat from its powerful neighbor, the Belarusian military would be unable to withstand an invasion by Russian forces or major proxy organization. Decades of neglect, poorly-motivated personnel, and a reliance on soviet-era platforms would mean the armed forces would be unable to support Lukashenka’s regime in the case of conflict.
Mr. Lukashenko has reason to cause alarm amongst Belarusian citizens: electoral defeat. Over the past month, Belarus has been overwhelmed by mass civil unrest aimed at the President's handling of COVID-19, strongman tactics, and corruption. If he is able to successfully refocus voters attention on supposed Russian aggression, the election would no longer be a referendum on his record.
Russia appears to be growing tired of Minsk's repeated outbursts. If Belarus extradites the Wagner operatives to Ukraine, continues aggressive actions against Moscow, or refuses to release its citizens, Russia may act forcefully to restore order on one of its most important borders.
UPDATE (7/5/20 - 10:05 PM CDT)
According to Peter Mäkelä, a former Finnish Rapid Deployment Force serviceman and freelance writer, several elements of Russia's famed 4th Guards Tank Division are currently moving from Naro-Fominsk, Moscow Oblast, Russia by rail. Long considered by Russia's Ministry of Defense a crack unit, it has seen action in South Ossetia, Kosovo, and Chechnya. It remains to be seen if this is in response to Belarusian actions or an unrelated activity.