When authorities in Belarus conducted a high-profile operation to detain some 33 suspected Russian mercenaries near Minsk on July 29, officials were quick to connect the incident with the country's August 9 presidential election.
The BelTA state news agency said the men -- and perhaps dozens more still at large -- were in Belarus to "destabilize the situation in the country ahead of the election."
But most analysts see an even more complex scenario being played out, one in which Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has found a convenient opportunity to discredit and contain a growing opposition movement and to exert even stricter control over an election in which the authoritarian ruler is seeking a sixth term as president.
A hastily organized meeting of some members of Belarus's Security Council on July 30 decided to impose stricter security measures at public events, a move that Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich said was aimed first of all at a planned opposition rally in Minsk set for July 31.
Security checkpoints will be set up and everyone will be thoroughly searched by police, Karbalevich said in an interview with Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
"This is all being done in order to sharply restrict the number of people attending the demonstration and to cut way back on the protest wave in general because the authorities are genuinely concerned about its scope," he said.
"This is a tactic in the election campaign that the authorities are using in order to cool the protest ardor," he concluded.
'A Clear Signal'
Belarusian economist and political commentator Syarhey Chaly added that Lukashenka could try to connect the opposition to the supposed Russian plot in order to justify a crackdown.
"In addition," Chaly told Current Time, "it is a clear signal to the West that if something serious happens here along the lines of 'Bloody Sunday' [a violent crackdown by authorities against protests in the wake of the December 2010 presidential election] that they should keep in mind that [Lukashenka] isn't just fighting against internal opposition, but against an attempted coup inspired by Russia."
But this begs the question of what the arrested Russians were doing in Belarus in the first place.
Belarusian media identified the men, aged between 22 and 55, as employees of the Vagner private security firm. The passports and other documents shown on Belarusian television seemed to confirm this, said Russian analyst Ruslan Leviyev, the founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team project, which has extensively researched the activities of Russian mercenaries abroad.
"The majority of them have long been known to us," Leviyev said. "Their names are available on the Internet as people who have fought for the Vagner Group. Some of them fought before joining Vagner in the Donbas region [in eastern Ukraine]. Then they joined Vagner and were in Syria, some of them in Libya. And now they are traveling on some other business."
Vagner is one of the best-known of several Russian private paramilitary companies that have come into being over the past decade. The company is widely believed to be controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a longtime associate of Vladimir Putin who once served as the Russian president's chef.
Prigozhin has previously denied any links to the group, though various investigations have linked him to its activities.
Prigozhin is also believed to have created and funded the Internet Research Agency, an online "troll farm" that U.S. authorities have charged with waging a propaganda-and-influence campaign in a bid to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Vagner's operations have always been held in close secrecy, in part because mercenary activity is illegal under Russian law and in part because the group is widely believed to operate in close cooperation with Russian military intelligence.
Vagner fighters have been documented in Ukraine, Syria, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Libya.
The Russian government denies that it cooperates with private paramilitary organizations.
Analysts say it is beyond unlikely that the Vagner mercenaries were on a mission in Belarus. They were staying together in a resort outside of Minsk and were wearing paramilitary clothing, for one thing. For another, these were not special operations forces or undercover agents.
"They are fighters, real participants in combat operations," said Chaly. "These are people who are trained and equipped to carry out military operations. They aren't intended to carry out diversions or some sort of terrorist acts. They have a completely different purpose."
Leviyev said the most likely explanation for why the Vagner mercenaries were in Belarus was that the firm is using Minsk as a transit point because Russia's commercial air traffic has been dramatically curtailed because of the global coronavirus pandemic.
"Here in Russia you can't fly to Turkey, but from Minsk you can," he said. "And from Istanbul you can fly to Syria, Libya, Sudan, or wherever."
Belarusian media showed that the fighters had passports for foreign travel, which would not be required for Russians whose final destination was Belarus. In addition, they were carrying Sudanese currency and Sudanese SIM cards.
Sudan, however, might not have been the ultimate destination for the group. A Current Time investigation in February 2019 found that M-Invest, a company controlled by Prigozhin, had signed contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry for military transport around Africa and the Middle East. RFE/RL's Russian Service in 2019 reported on mysterious Russian military flights between Khartoum, Sudan, and Libya.
Despite Lukashenka's public demands for an explanation from Russia about the presence of the mercenaries in Belarus, analysts say it is unlikely that Minsk was not aware of what Vagner was doing.
"If Belarus is really being used as a transit corridor," Karbalevich said, "then I think this is not the first time it has happened."
Karbalevich added, however, that it is possible that Minsk was not fully informed about the details of this particular group of mercenaries.
"Maybe Moscow decided that since there is an agreement, then maybe it isn't necessary to report about every group, give the names of all the people," he said. "This is possible."
Karbalevich resolutely rejects speculation that Lukashenka will use the incident as a pretext for declaring a state of emergency or postponing the August 9 election.
"There is no point in dragging out this politicized process any longer by postponing things for six months or a year," he told Current Time. "That would mean that for half a year the country would be in a tense, politicized state, and I think that is absolutely not what Lukashenka wants."
"He dreams of getting this all over with as quickly as possible," Karbalevich concluded. "Of seeing August 9 and 10 pass quickly and of quickly getting his 80 percent of the vote. And he'll deal with any protesters with his security structures."