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.
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.
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.