Off the freeway, previous an evergreen forest and behind a rusty gate, tons of of not too long ago erected tents, full of bunk beds comprised of slabs of aromatic pine wooden, stand prepared to be used in central Belarus.
The 300 tents, erected in current days on a decaying Soviet-era navy plot and able to housing 5,000 troopers, may need drawn little consideration, aside from the timing. They appeared simply after Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group staged a mutiny towards the Kremlin’s navy management, and after the autocratic chief of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, mentioned that an deserted navy base in his nation may home Wagner fighters.
However on Friday, Belarusian officers gave international journalists a guided tour of the unoccupied camp to make the purpose there have been no Wagner fighters there, or anyplace close by — a really uncommon present of obvious openness that solely added to the various unanswered questions in regards to the riot and its aftermath.
“We now have nothing to cover,” mentioned Maj. Gen. Leonid V. Kasinsky, an assistant to the Belarus Minister of Protection liable for ideology, as he guided reporters across the base. “Nobody from Wagner has come right here,” he added.
After the 36-hour mutiny ended on June 24 with out a main armed conflict, Mr. Lukashenko claimed credit score for brokering the decision, and he appeared to sketch the outlines of a deal: the Wagner chief Yevgeny V. Prigozhin would go to Belarus, Russian authorities wouldn’t prosecute him, and Wagner fighters in Ukraine who didn’t wish to be absorbed into the Russian navy, as required by a brand new legislation, may very well be welcome there, too.
Mr. Lukashenko mentioned final week that Wagner may use an outdated Belarusian navy base, however regardless of the hypothesis spurred by the brand new tents, it was not clear that he meant this one, within the village of Tsel’. He additionally mentioned that Mr. Prigozhin was in Belarus, although there was no affirmation of that.
On Thursday, in a uncommon session with international journalists, Mr. Lukahsenko mentioned Mr. Prigozhin was in Russia, a free man. On Friday, a Pentagon official, talking on situation of anonymity to debate navy intelligence, mentioned Mr. Prigozhin was believed to be in Moscow, with no obvious restrictions on his actions.
Common Kasinsky was cagey in regards to the camp’s objective. He mentioned it will be used for a navy coaching train in September, and insisted that the tents and bunks have been erected so rapidly as a part of an train in fast area camp building.
However he additionally informed visiting journalists, nearly as if with a wink and a nod, that the bottom “may very well be really helpful as one of many locations” the place Wagner troopers may very well be housed.
Mr. Lukashenko clearly enjoys being seen as an vital worldwide determine, concerned in diplomacy and energy politics. But it surely was not clear why his authorities, which takes a hostile view of media it doesn’t management, would invite international journalists to tour a spot that’s often off-limits to them. Nor was it evident why, days after providing a tentative welcome to Wagner fighters, Belarus needed to make a public show of their absence.
After pumping up his function in ending the disaster, Mr. Lukashenko has made clear his subordination to his patron, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. “The primary query of the place Wagner will likely be deployed and what is going to it do — it doesn’t depend upon me; it will depend on the management of Russia,” he mentioned on Thursday, whereas repeatedly referring to Mr. Putin as “large brother.”
In the case of Wagner’s murky future, Igor Ilyash, a journalist, mentioned the “creation of a way of uncertainty is useful to everybody: Lukashenko, Putin and Prigozhin.” Mr. Ilyash and his spouse, Katsiaryna Andreyeva, revealed a e-book in 2020 about Belarus and the battle in Ukraine, which features a part on Wagner; it was banned in Belarus nearly immediately and Ms. Andreyeva was arrested in November of that yr whereas working as a T.V. journalist.
“For Putin, it’s helpful as a result of it distracts the eye of Ukraine and NATO away from Russia and in direction of Belarus,’’ he mentioned. For Lukashenko it’s helpful as a result of it reveals him as greater than merely a vassal of Putin, Mr. Ilyash mentioned, “at a time when many individuals already stopped contemplating him an impartial actor.” And for Mr. Prigozhin it leaves open the likelihood that Wagner is just not being shut down.
Wagner’s future may develop into a political challenge for Mr. Lukashenko as effectively. He allowed Russian troops to invade Ukraine final yr from Belarusian territory however has prevented committing his troopers to the Kremlin’s trigger, which is unpopular in Belarus, in line with political analysts and impartial journalists. Personal navy corporations are formally unlawful in each Belarus and Russia, however neither Mr. Lukashenko nor Mr. Putin has felt the necessity to implement the legislation.
Whereas no less than a dozen Belarusian residents have fought with Wagner’s forces in Ukraine since 2014, together with two who have been accused by Ukraine of battle crimes final yr, none has been criminally charged, mentioned Mr. Ilyash. Nonetheless, in March 2022, Belarus accused 50 residents preventing on the Ukrainian facet of “complicity in an armed battle on the territory of a international state.”
Within the city of Asipovichy, close to the newly revived base, many native residents expressed concern in regards to the potential arrival of Wagner troopers.
“They’re mercenary killers,” mentioned Mikhail, 69, who works in a neighborhood manufacturing facility. “Why would I be completely happy that they’re right here? Defending your nation is one factor, however attacking one other nation is reprehensible.”
Mikhail withheld his final identify due to the potential for retribution by the repressive Belarusian authorities, which cracked down on any signal of dissent after a spate of pro-democracy protests in 2020.
“I do know individuals who signed petitions supporting candidates in addition to Lukashenko in 2020 who’re nonetheless being fired from their jobs due to the extent of repression,” he mentioned.
The world round Asipovichy is dwelling to plenty of navy bases, together with one which was believed for use as a coaching floor for Russian troopers. One other native resident, Vladimir, mentioned he usually noticed Russian troopers who have been coaching there, or touring by the town on their technique to and from the battlefields in Ukraine.
He estimated that about 70 p.c of individuals in his group have been indignant that Mr. Lukashenko had allowed Mr. Putin to stage a part of his invasion from Belarusian soil. He mentioned at first he tried to ask the Russian troopers he encountered to his dwelling and clarify that the battle was mindless, however then he gave up.
“They’re all brainwashed, they actually imagine they’re preventing Nazis,” he mentioned, citing Mr. Putin’s clarification for the invasion of Ukraine.
Mr. Lukashenko has used Wagner fighters to foster a way of strategic ambiguity earlier than. In 2020, an armed particular unit from the Belarusian Ok.G.B. arrested a bunch of Wagner fighters in a sleepy resort exterior Minsk, the capital. With nice pomp, Mr. Lukashenko declared on the time that the fighters have been despatched by Russia to disrupt his looming re-election.
However days later Mr. Lukashenko confronted a distinct form of problem, as hundreds of individuals took to the streets to protest election outcomes — his authorities mentioned Mr. Lukashenko received by a landslide — that they referred to as fraudulent. Immediately, Mr. Lukashenko’s rule seemed extra tenuous than ever, and he deployed particular police items to brutally suppress the protests.
He additionally felt compelled to hunt assist from Mr. Putin, who rapidly provided his personal police items to assist quell the rebellion, although ultimately, they weren’t referred to as on. The official story surrounding the arrested Wagner fighters rapidly modified: they have been the victims of an elaborate plot engineered by Ukraine’s secret service in cahoots with the US.
Now Mr. Lukashenko stands able to welcome Wagner fighters, at Mr. Putin’s pleasure.
The bottom in Tsel’, 125 miles from the border with Ukraine, was previously utilized by Belarus’s 465th Missile Brigade, which relocated in 2018.
On their extremely choreographed tour, journalists weren’t allowed to talk to the small group of troopers current, who Common Kasinsky mentioned have been liable for holding watch over the tents.
Common Kasinsky mentioned Belarus had no motive to concern internet hosting Wagner fighters on its territory.
“For now we don’t see any motive for hazard,” he mentioned.
Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.