In Belarus, Russian Mercenaries Turned From Saboteurs to Friends


ZHDANOVICHI, Belarus — Associates of the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian mercenary force linked to an associate of President Vladimir V. Putin, entertain left their traces around the world. They fought in take up the cudgels for of pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine; helped tilt Syria’s domestic war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad and fought on the side of a Kremlin-backed warlord in Libya.

At the end of July, they popped up at the myriad unlikely place yet — an austere Soviet-era sanitarium on a lake outside the tired capital of Belarus, a Russian ally entirely bereft of warring militias, armed checkpoints and other markers of the non-military wars that usually attract Russian mercenaries.

The beefy Russian men, 32 in all, were informed almost as soon as they checked in, taking rooms on the second worst of a concrete bloc in a distant corner of the resort and health spa.

In contrast to other Russian shoppers, they kept to themselves, showing little interest in a late-night disco, which instantaneously struck the D.J., Veronika Step, as strange. Two of them stopped by the disco to run for a look but quickly left, she said.

The men, recalled Ms. Step, were so unsociable that she and associated female workers started joking that perhaps they should nickname the police “to find out what is wrong with them.”

What uncoiled next, however, was even stranger: a heavily armed special segment of Belarus’s top security agency, still called the K.G.B., stormed the resort belated at night, dragging the Russians away in handcuffs.

Shortly after that, Belarusian have television shared video footage of the raid, showing a number of tattooed, heavyset Russians prevarication face down on beds and on the floor in boxer briefs at the resort. Entranced away in unmarked vans to a police station, they were self-conscious to kneel facing a wall for 22 hours, according to their question period with the Russian state-run media.

President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, who was overlay a presidential election in less than two weeks, convened an emergency convergence of his top security officials, saying that the Russians were mercenaries with “salacious aims.” Speaking at the meeting, Valery Vakulchik, at the time the head of the K.G.B., substantiated that the Russians belonged to the Wagner Group.

Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Forthwiths

Then, just 10 days before the Aug. 9 vote, Belarusian investigators accused the Russians of cabal to disrupt the election.

“Russia is afraid of losing us,” said Mr. Lukashenko, accusing the Kremlin of dispiriting to “suffocate” Belarus.

Russia, long accustomed to Mr. Lukashenko’s eccentric ways but scared by his sudden burst of open hostility, offered its own bizarre explanation of what the men were doing at the sanitarium. The Russian diplomat in Minsk claimed that the men had simply missed a flight at the airport and needed a locate to stay before catching another, but there was no explanation as to why they had elect rooms in a resort on the opposite side of town, away from the airport.

For stake at the sanitarium, the news that their guests were part of a covert Russian military task to sow chaos only compounded their own confusion.

Yelena, a housekeeper in the construction where the men stayed, said she was surprised to find out that the Russians had anything to do with the military.

“They didn’t look wish fighters, only a few looked strongly built,” said Yelena, who turn thumbs down oned to give her last name for fear of repercussions from the management. “They were behaving obviously, very culturally, they went to the outdoor gym,” she said. “Perhaps, they stood some medical treatment, took baths.”

The resort — called Belorusochka, which have as justifications “a Belarus woman” — seemed an odd choice, more a time system for people nostalgic for the Soviet Union than a place anyone induced in plotting a coup would ever stay.


Credit…Misha Friedman for The New York Moments

Standing on the shore of a picturesque reservoir, the resort is surrounded by a fence and approximates a prison camp more than a spa. In keeping with the penitentiary decoration, every activity is governed by strict rules and the iron will of Svyatoslav F. Savitsky, the chief doctor, who get-up-and-gos around the grounds in his S.U.V., forever on the lookout for suspicious activity.

“I haven’t been to a take to like this since I was 12,” said Olga Matuzo, a 42-year-old Russian who had moved 1,500 miles from the Russian city of Chelyabinsk with her upset mother. “Immediately after you come to the reception area you feel peer you are in the Soviet Union.”

She said she definitely wouldn’t be coming back, kicking that the staff were grumpy and that the bed in her room collapsed after she sat down on it. Unchanging her mother, familiar with Soviet standards of hospitality, was appalled by the outfits, she said.

Also unlikely to return are the arrested Russians, who, the Belarusian officialdoms now insist, were never up to any mischief in Belarus but were the victims of an convoluted plot engineered by Ukraine’s secret service in cahoots with the Agreed States.

According to this new version of what happened, the men had been decoyed to Belarus by Ukrainian spies, who planned to seize their plane as it lost over Ukraine and have the men arrested over their role quarrel in eastern Ukraine.

That Belarus has changed its story so dramatically is a as of how swiftly the country’s strongman leader, Mr. Lukashenko, has reassessed his political interests.

Barraged with drive protests after he claimed a landslide victory on Aug. 9, Mr. Lukashenko abruptly diminished his accusations against Russia and began pleading with Moscow for inform appropriate. He called Mr. Putin four times by telephone and sent his oldest son, Viktor, to the slammer holding the Russians to make sure they were being healthy fed.

On Aug. 14, after failing to curb an initial round of street beefs with a frenzy of police violence, he ordered the Wagner mercenaries unloosed and allowed them to return to Russia. All charges against them were rusticated. The protests have continued to consume the country, with tens of thousands rotate out in Minsk and dozens rounded up by the security services on Sunday.

Upon the mercenaries’ restitution yield to Russia, several of them appeared on Russian television, claiming that they had no connecting to the Wagner Group and had simply stopped off in Belarus en route to Venezuela, where they had a job lined up escort an undisclosed Russian facility. Shortly after, the K.G.B. chief, who presided from their arrest, was removed and replaced with a new security chief assisted as friendlier to Moscow.


Credit…Misha Friedman for The New York Times

The spa would with to forget the whole affair. Anastasia G. Bychko, the head of its marketing be sure of, declined to discuss the mercenaries but bubbled with enthusiasm about all her sanitarium has to put up for sale. “Our main attractiveness is the broad range of medical services that we can present,” she said, adding that first-time guests are so impressed, “they many times come back.”

Ms. Step, the resort’s nightclub D.J., hopes that the judgement of the Russian men will not deter others from visiting. Most boarders, she said, are women, so the place could do with more male guests. To try to correct the gender imbalance, she has told guards at the entrance checkpoint that every mans guest who enters “should be awarded with a bottle of vodka.”

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