Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko spoke by phone Friday, their first conversation since the Russians' were arrested on July 29 outside Belarus's capital of Minsk. The Kremlin said the two leaders “voiced confidence that the situation will be settled in the spirit of mutual understanding typical for cooperation between the two countries.”
It added that “Russia is interested in the preservation of a stable domestic political situation in Belarus and calm atmosphere at the forthcoming presidential election.” Moscow previously said the security contractors only were in Belarus because they missed a connecting flight to another country.
Lukashenko's office said in its readout of the call that he and Putin agreed to closely study the situation and to “track down the culprits and bring them to justice.” The readout said the two presidents “noted the importance of the brotherly Russia-Belarus ties and the need to resist the negative trends and actions by third parties that could strain them.”
Belarusian security officials have linked the Russians to the jailed husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former teacher who is running to unseat the authoritarian Lukashenko after his 26 years in power.
Belarusian authorities claimed the arrested contractors worked for the Wagner company, a private military firm is linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who was indicted in the United States for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Wagner has allegedly deployed hundreds of military contractors to eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
The government in Minsk has further irked Moscow by raising the possibility that some of the contractors could be handed over to Ukraine, which wants them on charges of fighting alongside Russia-backed separatists during the long conflict in eastern Ukraine..
The conciliatory Kremlin readout of the Putin-Lukashenko call marks a step back from a harsh rebuke issued earlier this week by Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia's Security Council.
Without mentioning Lukashenko by name, Medvedev said that by arresting the contractors, the Belarusian leadership had turned bilateral ties into “small change in the election campaign” and will face “sad consequences.”
Neighboring Russia and Belarus have a union agreement that envisages close political, economic and military ties between the traditional allies but stops short of a full merger.
During his time as the first and only president of ex-Soviet nation Belarus since it became independent, Lukashenko has relied on Russian subsidies and loans to for his nation’s economy but fiercely resisted Moscow’s push for control over Belarus’s economic assets.
The Kremlin turned the heat up on the Belarusian president earlier this year by withdrawing some of the subsidies and warning Lukashenko that he would have to accept closer economic and political integration to continue receiving Russian energy at a discount. The Belarusian leader denounced Moscow's stance as part of the Kremlin's alleged efforts to deprive Belarus of its independence.