Off the highway, past an evergreen forest and behind a rusty gate, hundreds of newly erected tents, filled with bunk beds made from slabs of fragrant pine wood, stand ready for use in central Belarus.
The 300 tents, erected in recent days on a dilapidated Soviet-era military site and capable of housing 5,000 soldiers, may have paid little attention, except for time. They emerged just after the Russian militia group Wagner staged an insurgency against the Kremlin’s military leadership, and after the autocratic leader of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, said an abandoned military base in his country could house Wagner fighters.
But on Friday, Belarusian officials gave foreign journalists a guided tour of the unoccupied camp to note that there were no Wagner fighters there, or anywhere near – a highly unusual display of apparent openness that only added to the many unanswered questions about the insurgency and its consequence
“We have nothing to hide,” said Major General Leonid V. Kasinsky, assistant to the Belarusian Defense Minister in charge of ideology, as he led reporters around the base. “None of Wagner came here,” he added.
After the 36-hour uprising ended on June 24 without a major armed clash, Mr. Lukashenko claimed credit for brokering the resolution, and he appeared to outline the outlines of a deal: Wagner leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin would go to Belarus, Russian authorities would not prosecute him, and Wagner fighters in Ukraine who did not want to be absorbed into the Russian military, as required by a new law, could be welcome there as well.
Mr. Lukashenko said last week that Wagner might use an old Belarusian military base, but despite the speculation spurred by the new tents, it was not clear that he meant this one, in the village of Tsel’. He also said that Mr. Prigozhin was in Belarus, although there was no confirmation of this.
On Thursday, in a rare meeting with foreign journalists, Mr. Lukashenko said that Mr. Prigozhin is in Russia, a free man. On Friday, a Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military intelligence, said Mr. Prigozhin was believed to be in Moscow, with no apparent restrictions on his movements.
General Kasinsky was misled about the purpose of the camp. He said it would be used for a military training exercise in September, and insisted the tents and beds were set up so quickly as part of an exercise in rapid field camp construction.
But he also told visiting reporters, almost as if with a wink and a nod, that the base “could be recommended as one of the places” where Wagner troops could be housed.
Mr. Lukashenko clearly enjoys being seen as an important international figure, involved in diplomacy and power politics. But it was not clear why his government, which takes a hostile view of media it does not control, would invite foreign journalists to tour a place that is normally off limits to them. Nor was it obvious why, days after offering a tentative welcome to Wagner fighters, Belarus wanted to make a public display of their absence.
Having stepped up his role in ending the crisis, Mr. Lukashenko made clear his submission to his patron, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. “The main question about where Wagner will be deployed and what it will do — it’s not up to me; it depends on the leadership of Russia,” he said on Thursday, while repeatedly referring to Mr Putin as “big brother”.
When it comes to Wagner’s uncertain future, Igor Ilyash, a journalist, said that “creating a sense of uncertainty is beneficial to everyone: Lukashenko, Putin and Prigozhin.” Mr. Ilyash and his wife, Katsiaryna Andreyeva, published a book in 2020 about Belarus and the war in Ukraine, which includes a section on Wagner; it was banned in Belarus almost immediately and Mrs. Andrejeva was arrested in November of that year while working as a television journalist.
“For Putin, it is useful because it diverts the attention of Ukraine and NATO away from Russia and towards Belarus,” he said. For Lukashenko it is useful because it shows him as more than just a vassal of Putin, Mr. Ilyash said, “at a time when many people have already stopped considering him an independent actor.” And for Mr. Prigozhin it leaves open the possibility that Wagner is not closed.
Wagner’s future could become a political issue for Mr. Lukashenko as well. He allowed Russian troops to invade Ukraine last year from Belarusian territory but avoided committing his troops to the Kremlin’s cause, which is unpopular in Belarus, according to political analysts and independent journalists. Private military companies are officially illegal in both Belarus and Russia, but neither Mr. Lukashenko nor Mr. Putin have felt the need to enforce the law.
While at least a dozen Belarusian citizens have fought with Wagner’s forces in Ukraine since 2014, including two who were charged by Ukraine with war crimes last year, none have been criminally charged, Mr. Ilyash said. However, in March 2022, Belarus accused 50 citizens to fight on the Ukrainian side of “complicity in an armed conflict on the territory of a foreign state.”
In the town of Asipovichy, near the recently revived base, many local residents expressed concern about the possible arrival of Wagner soldiers.
“They are mercenary assassins,” said Mikhail, 69, who works in a local factory. “Why would I be happy that they are here? Defending your country is one thing, but attacking another country is reprehensible.”
Mikhail withheld his surname because of the possibility of retribution by the repressive Belarusian government, which has suppressed any sign of dissent following a series of pro-democracy protests in 2020.
“I know people who signed petitions supporting candidates other than Lukashenko in 2020 who are still being fired from their jobs because of the level of repression,” he said.
The area around Asipovichy is home to a number of military bases, including one that is believed to have been used as a training ground for Russian soldiers. Another local resident, Vladimir, said he often saw Russian soldiers who trained there, or traveled through the town on their way to and from the battlefields in Ukraine.
He estimated that about 70 percent of people in his community were angry that Mr. Lukashenko had allowed Mr. Putin to stage part of his invasion from Belarusian soil. He said at first he tried to invite the Russian soldiers he met to his home and explain that the war was pointless, but then he gave up.
“They are all brainwashed, they really believe they are fighting Nazis,” he said, citing Mr Putin’s explanation for the invasion of Ukraine.
Mr. Lukashenko has used Wagner fighters to foster a sense of strategic ambiguity before. In 2020, an armed special unit of the Belarusian KGB arrested a group of Wagner fighters in a sleepy resort outside Minsk, the capital. With great pomp, Mr. Lukashenko declared at the time that the fighters had been sent by Russia to disrupt his threatened re-election.
But days later, Mr. Lukashenko faced a different kind of challenge, as thousands of people took to the streets to protest election results – his government said Mr. Lukashenko had won by a landslide – which they called fraudulent. Suddenly, Mr. Lukashenko’s rule looked more tenuous than ever, and he deployed special police forces to brutally suppress the protests.
He also felt compelled to seek help from Mr. Putin, who quickly offered his own police units to help quell the uprising, although in the end they were not called in. The official story surrounding the arrested Wagner fighters quickly changed: they were the victims of an elaborate plot carried out by the secret service of Ukraine in confusion with the United States.
Now Mr. Lukashenko stands ready to welcome Wagner fighters, as Mr. Putin pleases.
The base in Tsel’, 125 miles from the border with Ukraine, was previously used by Belarus’ 465th Missile Brigade, which relocated in 2018.
During their highly choreographed tour, journalists were not allowed to speak to the small group of soldiers present, who General Kasinsky said were responsible for guarding the tents.
General Kasinsky said that Belarus has no reason to fear hosting Wagner fighters on its territory.
“Right now we don’t see any reason for danger,” he said.
Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.