The arrest of 33 Russian mercenaries amid election chaos in Belarus is testing Putin's patience

The arrest of 33 Russian mercenaries amid election chaos in Belarus is testing Putin's patience
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko at a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from Nazi occupation, on July 2, 2014.RIA Novosti/REUTERS
  • No one believes Aleksander Lukashenko won 80% of the presidential vote in the Belarus election — that's why there was fighting on the streets of Minsk this weekend.
  • The chaos is likely to irritate Russian president Valdimir Putin, who has long wanted Belarus to stay closer to Moscow than Europe.
  • But Belarus officials arrested 33 Russian mercenaries, allegedly on their way to the Middle East, at a spa outside Minsk, complicating Putin's next move.
  • Putin will probably have to make a deal to get them back, security sources familiar with NATO's thinking tell Insider.

Sunday's re-election of Aleksander Lukashenko as president of Belarus appears to have been a debacle: He claims to have received over 80% of the vote, sparking violence overnight from incredulous opposition supporters who simply don't believe the numbers. Officially, Lukashenko defeated a slate of challengers including principal rival Svetlana Tikhanovskay, the wife of a jailed opposition figure who was forced by the arrests of her campaign staff Saturday to go into hiding in the capital of Minsk.

At least 120 people were detained in protests that spread to Brest, Gomel, and Grodno, among other Belarus cities.

Demonstrators could be seen on social media confronting police in the wake of the announcement. They claim pre-voting ballot stuffing by the incumbent party of 27 years started before polling had begun, and pointed to inflated vote counts in multiple precincts as evidence. In one case, activists recorded video of a poll worker escaping the back of a polling station on a ladder while clutching bags of what the activists claim are excess ballots. 

Now, analysts and intelligence services are wondering how Russia, and its mercurial president, Vladimir Putin, will react to the unrest.

Lukashenko has played Putin against the EU for years

Lukashenko's longstanding ability to play the European Union to its west and Russia to its east off one another to bring in international assistance has increasingly irritated Putin, who has long pushed for a closer economic and political union with Belarus, according to a NATO military intelligence official based in the Baltics. Talks between Belarus and Russia collapsed in January after Lukashenko reportedly demanded far more economic support from Moscow than the estimated $10 billion it receives annually in subsidized oil and natural gas imports.


The official, who does not have authorization to speak on the record, asked for anonymity in exchange for speaking freely about the crisis. The source's analysis was confirmed by two other NATO/EU intelligence officials.

"It's not a great situation in general but doubly dangerous because nobody can say for sure what Putin will do," the NATO official said.

"The polling was a fraud but this was expected by everyone from the EU to the Belarus people to the Kremlin," said the official. "After 27 years of moderate success in keeping Belarus neutral between Russia and the West, Lukashenko fell out of touch with his people. This is a normal crisis for a dictator like him. What's unusual is Russia's confused position."

Lukashenko 'has these mercenaries rounded up supposedly on their way to the Middle East and Putin freaked out'

It was the July 29 arrest of around 33 Russian citizens, allegedly mercenaries for a Kremlin-backed private military company operating in the Middle East, in a spa outside of Minsk that set things truly on edge, agreed the three European intelligence sources.

"[Lukashenko] has these mercenaries rounded up supposedly on their way to the Middle East and Putin freaked out," said the NATO official. "Several of them appear to have worked with the separatists in Donbass [Ukraine] and there's arrest warrants in Kiev for them. Preventing them from being sent to Kiev for trial, where they would almost certainly embarrass Putin, is a top priority and stopping the anarchy right now in Minsk. And the utmost priority is keeping Belarus out of the EU's orbit and cosy with Moscow."


All three intelligence officials agree that the strife over the election benefits Putin's agenda.

"Lukashenko is clashing with his own people and drawing ire from the EU, so if he wants to stay in power he's going to have to crawl back to Putin for political and financial support," said the official. "How far [Putin] is willing to go to keep [Lukashenko] in power probably depends on what happens next but it's clear from the stern wording of the Kremlin congratulatory statement sent today that Putin will expect a new enthusiasm from Minsk for its regional agenda."

Putin's statement was not subtle: "I expect that your statesmanship will facilitate the further development of mutually beneficial Russian-Belarusian relations in all spheres, as well as the further enhancement of cooperation within the Union State," it said, according to a telegram published by TASS.

"My guess is that Lukashenko will extract some support from Putin and eventually return the mercenaries," Insider's source said.