Disinfo: Arrest of Russian ‘mercenaries’ in Belarus was a Ukrainian provocation

Summary

The 33 Russian citizens arrested in Belarus in late July have been labelled members of the Russian private military company Wagner and allegedly hired to destabilise the country. However, a Russian newspaper investigation traces the affair to Ukraine and says it could be a provocation by its intelligence services. The tickets for the group were booked by a Ukraine-based travel agency, according to information provided by Turkish Airlines. The Ukrainian firm had only opened in January 2020. Yet another Ukrainian firm, also registered in January, was used to buy tickets for the second group of contractors. The journalist behind the investigation believes that the entire set-up was orchestrated by Ukraine’s successor to the KGB, the SBU, which then allegedly tipped off its Belarusian counterpart about the ‘Russian mercenaries’, portraying them as a threat to Belarus and aiming to drive a wedge between Moscow and Minsk.

Disproof

The story advances recurring pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives about Ukraine and its security services. Despite its considerable length, the “investigation” originally published by the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda bases its claim of Ukrainian involvement in the affair entirely on the manner in which the plane tickets were acquired. A fact-check by The Insider website notes that it is common practice for travel agencies to operate in multiple countries under one brand name. Coral Travel, the Russian company mentioned by Komsomolskaya Pravda, has offices in Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere. “It is an internal matter of the travel agency to decide through which country office the tickets should be purchased,” the fact-check states and adds: “This author’s personal experience attests that plane tickets acquired via a Russian aggregator may have been purchased by an international company with links to Russia through a Ukrainian travel agency. [...] Alleging Ukrainian involvement based solely on the way in which the tickets were purchased is about as logical as labelling anyone who uses a Chinese smartphone an agent of China.” Updated 21 August 2020: the debunk reflects the situation as of the 13 August 2020, when it was first published. On the 20 August, Ukraine’s Secret Service (SBU) officially stated that any rumours of its alleged involvement in the matter were false.

publication/media

  • Reported in: Issue 207
  • DATE OF PUBLICATION: 07/08/2020
  • Outlet language(s) English, Russian, Spanish, Castilian, German
  • Countries and/or Regions discussed in the disinformation: Belarus, Ukraine, Russia
  • Keywords: election meddling, Alexander Lukashenko, SBU
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Ukraine may use Belarus elections as a pretext for intensifying hostilities in Donbas

In the context of possible aggravation of the situation in Belarus, when, after the elections and Lukashenko’s probable victory, the Belarusian opposition will try to start street protests, Ukraine may try to use this situation to intensify hostilities in Donbas and solve its problems. The elections in Belarus create a convenient situation, not only to dig a rusty nail in the Russian-Belarusian problems but also to use these problems and possible protests in Minsk as a cover-up for military operations in Donbas.

Disproof

Conspiracy theory advancing a recurring pro-Kremlin disinformation narrative about the war in Ukraine claiming that the Ukrainian side violates the ceasefire agreement in Donbas. As for the elections in Belarus, the EU stated that they were neither free nor fair. The full and comprehensive ceasefire agreement was established in Donbas on July 27, 2020. The new agreement was certified in the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk as part of the implementation of the Minsk agreements. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the truce is the most important point of the agreements reached at the Normandy summit in Paris. The implementation of these agreements is a guarantee of a gradual movement towards peace in Donbas. The effectiveness of the ceasefire is confirmed by the level of tension on the front line, which significantly eased in the past two weeks. Volodymyr Zelenskyy emphasised that Ukraine is doing its best to maintain the ceasefire and save the lives of servicemen. Since the beginning of the ceasefire, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission recorded 251 violations, which is much lower than before the ceasefire came into force. On average there were 700-800 violations a day in 2019. On 5 August, the Mission recorded no violations for the first time. See earlier disinformation narratives stating that the government in Kyiv is sabotaging the peace in Donbas, that the Ukrainian side does not abide by the Minsk agreements or that only Ukraine violates the ceasefire regime in Donbas.

The EU provides practically no assistance to Ukraine

From the first day of Ukraine gaining independence, the West continued to view Ukraine as part of the former Soviet Union, which explains the openly predatory and colonial policy towards the country on the part of Europe. The European Union provides practically no assistance to Ukraine.

Disproof

Recurring pro-Kremlin disinformation narrative about abandoned Ukraine. Ukraine is a sovereign country and priority partner for the European Union. In total, since 2014, the EU and European financial institutions have allocated a package of over €15 billion in grants and loans to support the reform process in Ukraine. Within the framework of the association agreement, a free trade zone was created between Ukraine and the EU. In 2019, trade between Ukraine and the EU reached €44.6 billion. Since 2014, more than €205 million has been invested in the transport sector. The EU is also providing €53 million to support the modernisation of secondary education and vocational education. Since 2014, over €40 million has been allocated to support civil society in Ukraine. The U-LEAD with Europe program is supporting the decentralisation reform that enhances the transparency and accountability of local and regional governments and their ability to deliver better services. The total amount is €130 million. The EU continues to support anti-corruption organisations in Ukraine. A total of €30 million has been allocated for the fight against corruption. Ukraine has been allocated an individual assistance package during the COVID-19 pandemic in the amount of over €190 million. The EU, along with its member states, is the largest donor of humanitarian aid for eastern Ukraine. The people most affected by the conflict received €141.8 million in financial assistance. The €50 million EU Support to the East of Ukraine program supports reforms in conflict-affected areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Additional support (€6 million) has also been earmarked for mine clearance and psychological assistance programs. European financial institutions are also targeting conflict-affected areas; the European Investment Bank has allocated a package of €200 million for the early restoration of damaged infrastructure.

RT France is a French channel

RT France is a French channel, composed of French journalists. It has signed an agreement with the French media authority, has a code of ethics, journalists’ unions and an ethics’ committee. Twitter doesn’t care about all this and labels its account “State-affiliated media, Russia”.

Disproof

Recurrent disinformation message about the French branch of RT. RT France cannot be considered as a French channel as it was created and continues to be financed and editorially controlled by Russian state. Read more here. Unlike other branches the logo of RT in French is not labelled "RT in French" but "RT France". Any connection to Russia is not very noticeable from this name as in French RT also means Radio-Télévision. In August 2020, the social network Twitter decided to label RT 's account with "State-affiliated media, Russia" because of Russian funding and the lack of editorial independence. To read similar stories: RT France is a French press group, Sputnik and RT situation in France is extremely difficult and French authorities called to boycott those media, Latvian authorities blinded by Russophobia: there is no link between Dmitry Kiselyov and RT.