No Wagner Group Here: Riddles Grow as Belarus Displays an Empty Base

Off the highway, past an evergreen forest and behind a rusty gate, hundreds of recently erected tents, stuffed with bunk beds made from slabs of fragrant pine wood, stand ready for use in central Belarus.

The 300 tents, erected in recent days on a decaying Soviet-era military plot and capable of housing 5,000 soldiers, might have drawn little attention, except for the timing. They appeared just after Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group staged a mutiny against the Kremlin’s military leadership, and after the autocratic leader of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, said that an abandoned military base in his country could house Wagner fighters.

But on Friday, Belarusian officials gave foreign journalists a guided tour of the unoccupied camp to make the point there were no Wagner fighters there, or anywhere nearby — a very unusual show of apparent openness that only added to the many unanswered questions about the rebellion and its aftermath.

“We have nothing to hide,” said Maj. Gen. Leonid V. Kasinsky, an assistant to the Belarus Minister of Defense responsible for ideology, as he guided reporters around the base. “No one from Wagner has come here,” he added.

After the 36-hour mutiny ended on June 24 without a major armed clash, Mr. Lukashenko claimed credit for brokering the resolution, and he seemed to sketch the outlines of a deal: the Wagner leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin would go to Belarus, Russian authorities would not prosecute him, and Wagner fighters in Ukraine who did not want to be absorbed into the Russian military, as required by a new law, could be welcome there, too.

Mr. Lukashenko said last week that Wagner might use an old Belarusian military base, but despite the speculation spurred by the new tents, it was not clear that he meant this one, in the village of Tsel’. He also said that Mr. Prigozhin was in Belarus, though there was no confirmation of that.

On Thursday, in a rare session with foreign journalists, Mr. Lukahsenko said Mr. Prigozhin was in Russia, a free man. On Friday, a Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military intelligence, said Mr. Prigozhin was believed to be in Moscow, with no apparent restrictions on his movements.

General Kasinsky was cagey about the camp’s purpose. He said it would be used for a military training exercise in September, and insisted that the tents and bunks were erected so quickly as part of an exercise in rapid field camp construction.

But he also told visiting journalists, almost as if with a wink and a nod, that the base “could be recommended as one of the places” where Wagner soldiers could be housed.

Mr. Lukashenko clearly enjoys being seen as an important international figure, involved in diplomacy and power politics. But it was not clear why his government, which takes a hostile view of media it does not control, would invite foreign journalists to tour a place that is usually off-limits to them. Nor was it evident why, days after offering a tentative welcome to Wagner fighters, Belarus wanted to make a public display of their absence.

After pumping up his role in ending the crisis, Mr. Lukashenko has made clear his subordination to his patron, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. “The main question of where Wagner will be deployed and what will it do — it doesn’t depend on me; it depends on the leadership of Russia,” he said on Thursday, while repeatedly referring to Mr. Putin as “big brother.”

When it comes to Wagner’s murky future, Igor Ilyash, a journalist, said the “creation of a sense of uncertainty is beneficial to everyone: Lukashenko, Putin and Prigozhin.” Mr. Ilyash and his wife, Katsiaryna Andreyeva, published a book in 2020 about Belarus and the war in Ukraine, which includes a section on Wagner; it was banned in Belarus almost instantly and Ms. Andreyeva was arrested in November of that year while working as a T.V. journalist.

“For Putin, it is useful because it distracts the attention of Ukraine and NATO away from Russia and towards Belarus,’’ he said. For Lukashenko it is useful because it shows him as more than simply a vassal of Putin, Mr. Ilyash said, “at a time when many people already stopped considering him an independent actor.” And for Mr. Prigozhin it leaves open the possibility that Wagner is not being shut down. 

Wagner’s future could become a political issue for Mr. Lukashenko as well. He allowed Russian troops to invade Ukraine last year from Belarusian territory but has avoided committing his soldiers to the Kremlin’s cause, which is unpopular in Belarus, according to political analysts and independent journalists. Private military companies are officially illegal in both Belarus and Russia, but neither Mr. Lukashenko nor Mr. Putin has felt the need to enforce the law.

While at least a dozen Belarusian citizens have fought with Wagner’s forces in Ukraine since 2014, including two who were accused by Ukraine of war crimes last year, none has been criminally charged, said Mr. Ilyash. However, in March 2022, Belarus accused 50 citizens fighting on the Ukrainian side of “complicity in an armed conflict on the territory of a foreign state.”

In the town of Asipovichy, near the newly revived base, many local residents expressed concern about the potential arrival of Wagner soldiers.

“They are mercenary killers,” said Mikhail, 69, who works in a local factory. “Why would I be happy that they are here? Defending your country is one thing, but attacking another country is reprehensible.”

Mikhail withheld his last name because of the possibility of retribution by the repressive Belarusian government, which cracked down on any sign of dissent after a spate of pro-democracy protests in 2020.

“I know people who signed petitions supporting candidates besides Lukashenko in 2020 who are still being fired from their jobs because of the level of repression,” he said.

The area around Asipovichy is home to a number of military bases, including one that was believed to be used as a training ground for Russian soldiers. Another local resident, Vladimir, said he often saw Russian soldiers who were training there, or traveling through the city on their way to and from the battlefields in Ukraine.

He estimated that about 70 percent of people in his community were angry that Mr. Lukashenko had allowed Mr. Putin to stage part of his invasion from Belarusian soil. He said at first he tried to invite the Russian soldiers he encountered to his home and explain that the war was senseless, but then he gave up.

“They are all brainwashed, they really believe they are fighting Nazis,” he said, citing Mr. Putin’s explanation for the invasion of Ukraine.

Mr. Lukashenko has used Wagner fighters to foster a sense of strategic ambiguity before. In 2020, an armed special unit from the Belarusian K.G.B. arrested a group of Wagner fighters in a sleepy resort outside Minsk, the capital. With great pomp, Mr. Lukashenko declared at the time that the fighters were sent by Russia to disrupt his looming re-election.

But days later Mr. Lukashenko faced a different sort of challenge, as thousands of people took to the streets to protest election results — his government said Mr. Lukashenko won by a landslide — that they called fraudulent. Suddenly, Mr. Lukashenko’s rule looked more tenuous than ever, and he deployed special police units to brutally suppress the protests.

He also felt compelled to seek help from Mr. Putin, who quickly offered his own police units to help quell the uprising, though in the end, they were not called on. The official story surrounding the arrested Wagner fighters quickly changed: they were the victims of an elaborate plot engineered by Ukraine’s secret service in cahoots with the United States.

Now Mr. Lukashenko stands ready to welcome Wagner fighters, at Mr. Putin’s pleasure.

The base in Tsel’, 125 miles from the border with Ukraine, was formerly used by Belarus’s 465th Missile Brigade, which relocated in 2018.

On their highly choreographed tour, journalists were not allowed to speak to the small group of soldiers present, who General Kasinsky said were responsible for keeping watch over the tents.

General Kasinsky said Belarus had no reason to fear hosting Wagner fighters on its territory.

“For now we don’t see any reason for danger,” he said.

Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

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