On July 29, 2020, a group of 33 men allegedly working for Russian intelligence-associated Wagner mercenary group were detained by Belarusian authorities outside of Minsk. Approximately 200 militants are said to have entered Belarus to “destabilize the situation during the election campaign.”
If the allegations are true, this indicates a shift in Russia’s attitude toward Belarus, perhaps seeing an increasing threat to, or possibly from, its sometimes ally in Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus. Lukashenko has long been viewed as a skilled fence-sitter, juggling ties between the European Union and Russia, although he has recently started to change his tune against the latter. Belarus has displayed increasing wariness toward Russian covert military interference since the invasion of Ukraine and, in 2016, adopted a new military doctrine with language that included language on countering similar incidents.
Among the men detained were several former fighters who had taken part in the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, as well as veteran Wagner mercenaries who have been documented as having been active in the Middle East and Africa. The exact reason for why these men were in Belarus and why they were arrested remains unclear, with some even questioning whether the men were employed by Wagner. Rob Lee, a PhD student as King’s College London, outlined the incident in great detail in an extensive twitter thread.
Zakhar Prilepin, a Russian novelist and former deputy commander of the former 4th Reconnaissance-Assault Battalion of the so-called Donesk People’s Republic (DNR), posted on his Facebook profile that former members of his battalion were among the detained. According to Prilepin, two or three fighters from his battalion were among the detained.
“Prilepin’s battalion” allegedly underwent reform roughly a year after his departure from Ukraine. Formerly a part of the Special Purpose Regiment (Unit 02707), his unit was absorbed into Unit 2002 of the DNR “Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” along with another battalion from the Special Purpose Regiment (Patriot).
The Special Purpose Regiment was staffed with men loyal to the former head of DNR, Alexander Zakharchenko, prior to his assassination in 2018. It acted as a type of praetorian guard, with units from the regiment taking part in the coup against Igor Plotnitskiy, then head of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), as documented by the DFRLab.
The regiment consisted of four battalions — “Chechen,” “Patriot,” “International Brigade Pyatnashka,” and the 4th Reconnaissance-Assault Battalion. Influenced by Prilepin’s own political views, the leadership of his battalion largely consisted of Russian nationals who were members of the ultra-nationalist Other Russia party. The transfer of these units into the security services (MVD, and in the case of other units, the “State Security Ministry — MGB)” represents a consolidation into armed forces dedicated to internal issues. Formerly, these forces could still be used as contingencies for “internal” action, but the structure is now more formalized.
Among the detained in Belarus on July 29 was Alexander Shubin, who served in Prilepin’s personal security detail along with three other fighters during Prilepin’s stint in Ukraine.
As such, Shubin appeared to be close to Prilepin and was mentioned numerous times throughout Prilepin’s novel about his time in the Donbas. News of Shubin’s detainment likely prompted Prilepin to write the Facebook post; it is uncertain whether he knew about Shubin being in Belarus beforehand. Although marketed as fiction, Prilepin’s book is a thinly veiled chronicle of his time of deputy commander of the 4th Reconnaissance-Assault Battalion.
In a May 2020 interview with Prilepin by Kseniya Sobchak titled “PRILEPIN: on Jews, Putin and the new constitution,” Shubin is filmed driving Sobchak to Prilepin’s residence, indicating that the two remained close after Prilepin returned to Russia and his battalion disbanded.
Born in 1996, Shubin was likely among the youngest of the men detained, as most other mercenaries were typically born between the mid 1970’s and late 1980’s. Originally from the separatist-held Ukrainian city of Luhansk, Shubin would often wear the patch of Spetsnaz Company Moongoose (РСН Мангуст) of the neighboring LNR while serving in Prilepin’s battalion.
A large part of Prilepin’s battalion was, according to himself, made up of men from Luhansk who had come from Plotnitskiy’s “personal spetsnaz,” a reference to former LNR head Igor Plotnitskiy who was ousted in a coup in November 2017.
Not just Prilepin
Many of the men arrested had taken part in the armed hostilities between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government in eastern Ukraine, as outlined in a Twitter thread by Bellingcat’s Aric Toler. Among them were fighters who had served with units in the DNR such as the 11th Motor-Rifle Regiment “Vostok,” ”Sparta Battalion,” the 100th “Republican Guard” Motor-Rifle Brigade “Kupol,” and several others. Fewer fighters from LNR were noted, with one being noted as having served with the 7th Motor-Rifle Brigade.
The DFRLab observed several of these men having an affiliation with the “Union of Volunteers of Donbas” (SDD), an organization dedicated to former Pro-Russian fighters from the war in eastern Ukraine. The SDD is a large organization, so this comes as no major surprise, but the participation in SDD by some of the 32 men was still notable.
Denis Yurevich Kharitonov was perhaps the highest profile SDD member among those detained outside of Minsk. A Don Cossack, Kharitonov was regional head for the Astrakhan Oblast for SDD in 2019 and already sported a large collection of the highly characteristic Wagner “iron cross”-style medals when photographed at a Cossack meet in April 2018. After his arrest in Belarus, all of Kharitonov’s social media was deleted.
Many other men detained were veteran Wagner mercenaries, as outlined in a Kommersant article detailing the profiles of several of the men detained. One of the veteran mercenaries even served with the “Slavonic Corps,” a blunderous Russian mercenary group involved in fighting in Syria in 2013 that later morphed into the Wagner group. Novaya Gazeta also verified the Wagner affiliation of a number of the 33 men but noted that evidence was lacking for 19 of the individuals, Shubin included.
Michael Sheldonis a Research Associate with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.