Inside Wagnergate: Ukraine’s Brazen Sting Operation to Snare Russian Mercenaries

On 29 July 2020, Belarusian state media announced that the country’s security services had arrested 33 fighters from the Wagner private military contractor. These men were, according to the report, part of a group of more than 200 fighters present in Belarus to destabilise the country in the run-up to its Presidential elections in early August. All of the men, whose names and dates of birth were published in the initial 29 July report, were Russian nationals while a handful also had dual citizenship with Ukraine and Belarus.
Although Belarus initially accused Russia of meddling in the August election, the two countries appeared to reconcile with the return of the mercenaries to Russia and further cooperation in military and economic spheres.
It later transpired that the appearance of the Russian mercenaries had nothing to do with the Belarusian elections or Russian meddling, rather it was part of a Ukrainian sting operation that had been cut short. The political fallout from these events continues to be felt over a year later, drawing in the last two presidents of Ukraine and much of the country’s security, military, and intelligence services.

A year-long investigation by Bellingcat and the Insider has established that the operation which resulted in the capture of 33 mercenaries in Minsk in July 2020 was in fact an elaborate sting conducted by Ukraine’s military intelligence service GUR MOU with the support of the counterintelligence department of the domestic intelligence agency, the SBU. Through the false-flag recruitment of mercenaries for a now defunct private military contractor (PMC), the operation aimed to lure dozens of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian citizens who, in the assessment of the Ukrainian authorities, had committed serious crimes while fighting for Russia-supported military entities in the country’s East.

Many, but not all of the targeted mercenaries, had fought in Ukraine’s Donbas region as part of the infamous Wagner private military contractor (PMC). Others fought as part of Russia-sponsored “volunteer corps” while others had been working directly for Russia’s military or security services. Most of the targeted men had at some point served as mercenaries for the Wagner group, whether in Ukraine or subsequently in Syria, Libya or the Central African Republic (CAR).

The operation had begun as early as 2018 as a run-of-the-mill intelligence-gathering campaign by GUR MOU. By late 2019, following the success of Ukrainian rendition operations such as the retrieval of former separatist military commander Vladimir Tsemakh, the project had taken a more ambitious turn. By early 2020 it had morphed into an opportunistic sting operation targeting hundreds of former mercenaries idling away during the Covid-19 lockdown in their home towns and villages across Russia. At this point, a number of outcomes were still under consideration. These included terminating the operation after sufficient intelligence had been gathered or luring the targets to a third country — such as Hungary, Poland, or the Baltic nations — and requesting their extradition to Ukraine.

The Origins of the Sting

Higher Aspirations

Operation Avenue 1.0

The Fake PMC MAR

The Fake Rosneft

The Fake “Sergey Petrovich”

The GRU Mole

Fake Casting 1.0

Help from the Shaman

A Deluge of Applications

Waiting for Petrovich

The Death of Sergey Petrovich

Moving to Active Phase

The Final Research

Planning a Plane-Jacking

Problematic Parallels

The Political Go-Ahead

Involving the SBU

Deniable Operationalising of Intelligence

The Trip Begins

A Change of Plans

Enemies Within and Without

33 Sober Men in Minsk

The Arrest

Wanted by Ukraine

Wanted by Russia

The Denouement

2021-11-17 | UK & Europe, Belarus, Ukraine | English |