The Russian tourists who checked into a sanatorium outside Minsk last week put the staff ill at ease.
Not only were the men in military fatigues, they only had three enormous suitcases for all 32 of them. The Russians also “did not drink alcohol or visit entertainment facilities”, according to state media, noting it was “atypical behaviour for Russian tourists”.
Belarus authorities arrested the men and another Russian, claiming they were mercenaries plotting to “destabilise the situation” ahead of Sunday’s elections, the toughest President Alexander Lukashenko has faced in his 26 years of rule.
The Russians’ mysterious trip has also become a bellwether for Belarus’s deteriorating relationship with Russia, its longtime patron.
In an emotional address to the nation on Tuesday, Mr Lukashenko claimed the detained men had confessed to being sent to Belarus to “await instructions”. He also said that another group of “foreigners” had been deployed to southern Belarus and he accused his opponents of “attempting to organise a massacre in the centre of Minsk”, the capital — without specifying who the alleged architects might be.
Mr Lukashenko’s allegations come as the opposition enjoys a surge of support due to the president’s cavalier response to the coronavirus pandemic, which he dismissed as a “psychosis” despite recently contracting the disease himself. Cases in the country of just under 10m are over 68,000 and continue to rise.
During the speech on Tuesday, he wiped sweat from his brow with a handkerchief and wheezed as he told a hall packed with the nation’s elite that his opponents were “puppets” under the control of foreign forces.
Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, said on Tuesday that “there is no proof of [the mens’] guilt” and accused Belarus of using the men in the service of “opportunistic interests” ahead of the vote.
Ukraine has requested the extradition of 28 of the men on charges of fighting for Kremlin-controlled separatists in the country’s east.
Belarus regularly warns of foreign terror threats ahead of elections and major protests, though the evidence often proves dubious. In 2006 authorities claimed that unknown forces had plotted to poison the water supply with dead rats. But the spat with Moscow indicates Mr Lukashenko is running out of room for geopolitical manoeuvre, according to Aleksandr Feduta, a former adviser to the president.
“He personally is afraid of Russia, of the Kremlin, of Putin,” said Mr Feduta, who was imprisoned after supporting an opposition candidate in 2010.
The president can no longer try to blame the west for undermining elections, he said: “That doesn’t work any more. It’s not possible to scare people with that.”
Mr Lukashenko’s longtime strategy of playing Russia and the west off each other has foundered in the last year after he resisted Vladimir Putin’s drive for deeper economic integration with Belarus.
Mr Lukashenko has sought alternative energy supplies after a change in Russian oil taxation policy battered Belarus’s sluggish economy.
Much about the mercenaries’ trip remains unclear. Russia’s embassy in Minsk said the men had missed their flight to Istanbul en route to work as private security contractors in an unnamed South American country.
Zakhar Prilepin, a Russian novelist who previously led a mercenary battalion fighting for the Kremlin in eastern Ukraine in which some of the arrested men served, said that about 200 Russian mercenaries had used Belarus as a transit point in recent weeks due to its lack of flight restrictions during the pandemic.
“Those groups had nothing to do with Belarus or any activity there. Belarus was just a point of transit,” Mr Prilepin told Interfax, the Russian news agency.
Artyom Shraibman, founder of Sense Analytics, a Minsk-based political consultancy, said Mr Lukashenko’s attacks on Russia reflected his nerves ahead of the election.
“Relations with the west got better in recent years as relations with Russia got worse, so it’s the obvious logical connection to make,” he said.
In June, Belarus arrested Mr Lukashenko’s two most popular challengers, former banker Viktor Babariko and YouTuber Sergei Tikhanovsky, and accused them of working with Russian “puppetmasters” to overthrow Mr Lukashenko. Mr Tikhanovsky’s wife has emerged as an unlikely opposition consensus candidate after running in his stead.
Rumours have circled in Russia for years that Mr Putin may have grander designs on Belarus. Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consulting firm R. Politik, claimed last week that Russia’s security council chief and the owner of Wagner, the Kremlin’s main mercenary group, were exploring “Belarus and Russia becoming a union with one currency, administered from Moscow” or even “completely integrating Belarus into Russia’s territory” as a province.
The Kremlin, however, has so far been restrained in its responses to Belarus. Since last year, Minsk has expelled the Russian ambassador, arrested a Russian state TV crew, and seized the Russian-owned bank formerly headed by Mr Babariko, all without consequences.
“This won’t improve relations with Russia, but it’s entirely possible [Moscow] might wait until passions have subsided to sort this out,” Mr Shraibman said.
Mr Lukashenko suggested as much himself in Tuesday’s address. “Russia has always been and will remain our closest ally, whoever is in power,” he said. “This is held deeply by our peoples, even if Russia has started treating us like partners instead of brothers.”