Three days after ending his attempted mutiny against Moscow, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Private Military Corporation, landed in his new home of Belarus, according to the leader of that nation. Though free from charges connected with the weekend’s aborted 'march on Moscow,' he is facing an uncertain future. The troops and equipment he amassed are being prepared for turnover to the Russian Defense Ministry and his role remains murky.
“Yes, indeed, he is in Belarus today,” Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko said Tuesday during a speech after a military promotion ceremony, according to the official Belarusian BelTa news service. However, no images have yet emerged of him there. Allowing Prigozhin in Belarus raises questions about how he can be contained. What happens next with Wagner, meanwhile, particularly in Africa, is something the Pentagon said it is keeping an eye on.
Prigozhin’s move to Belarus was part of an agreement Lukashenko said he brokered to end the march on Moscow. In another fiery audio message on Monday, Prigozhin said he came within 200 kilometers of the Russian capital.
During his Tuesday speech, and in a meeting with his defense minister, Lukashenko offered his take on how the deal was arranged and gave some indications of what Prigozin will and will not do while in Belarus.
Lukashenko said he talked Putin into accepting diplomacy instead of military action and negotiated with Prigozhin.
Lukashenko said his first round of discussions with Prigozhin “was spoken for 30 minutes in swear language."
He added that he told Prigozhin, “you will be crushed halfway like a bug" by Russian forces in any attempt to reach Moscow.
Lukashenko said Prigozhin agreed to stand down in return for security guarantees. Those were offered, the Belarusian President said, after Prigozhin agreed not to harm civilians, stop his march and abandon his demand that Russian President Vladimir Putin get rid of his top two military leaders, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Army Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov.
Prigozhin for months had railed against Shoigu and Gerasimov, ultimately blaming them over the weekend for leading a war effort on false pretenses that caused the needless death of tens of thousands of Russian troops.
While Prigozhin could have been killed, Lukashenko argued that would not prove a lasting solution to the question of what to do with his forces, according to BelTa.
“Who is Prigozhin?" Lukashenko asked rhetorically. "He is a very authoritative person today in the armed forces. No matter how much someone would like it. Therefore, I thought: 'we can kill [him]. I said to Putin: 'We can kill [Prigozhin].'"
But he opted not to, "because then there will be no negotiations. These guys who know how to stand up for each other, who fought there and in Africa, Asia, Latin America, they will do anything. We can also kill [him] but thousands, thousands of civilians and those who will resist the Wagnerists will die."
"In no case to make a hero out of me, out of Putin and Prigozhin," Lukashenko told reporters, saying he and Putin misread the situation and that it didn't resolve itself until Prigozhin ultimately backed down.
Prigozhin came to Belarus no longer facing mutiny charges.
The investigative department of the Russian Federal Security Bureau (FSB) announced it was terminating the criminal case against Prigozhin for staging an armed rebellion, Russian official state media outlet RIA Novosti reported Tuesday.
The reason was that “its participants stopped actions directly aimed at committing a crime," RIA Novosti reported.
Lukashenko also said that while Prigozhin may have a role in training Belarusian troops, neither he nor his Wagner forces will have anything to do with the Russian-provided tactical nuclear weapons Lukashenko today again said were already in Belarus. You can read more about the presence of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus in our coverage here.
“A significant part of nuclear weapons have already been brought to Belarus,” Lukashenko said, according to the Belarusian Defense Ministry’s (MoD) Telegram channel. “The Poles and others believe that Wagner will guard nuclear weapons and so on. Wagner will not protect any nuclear weapons. They will be guarded there, and guarded today, since a part of the nuclear weapons (I won’t say how many), most of them have already been brought to Belarus. Russians and Belarusians are guarding.”
Guarding the nuclear weapons “is our task,” said Lukashenko. “And I am primarily responsible for the safety of weapons. Therefore, we will never go for it. We have enough guys who are able to guard this facility together with the Russians.”
But despite public concerns about Prigozhin being in Belarus, he and the troops coming with him do bring a lot to the table for the nation, Lukashenko said during a meeting with his Defense Minister, Lieutenant-General Viktor Khrenin.
“Now there is a lot of talk and chatter: ‘Wagner, Wagner, Wagner,’” Lukashenko said about public concerns regarding the arrival of Prigozhin. “People don’t understand that we are also pragmatic about this.”
The experience Wagner forces had fighting in Ukraine can provide valuable lessons for Belarusian troops, said Lukashenko.
“If their commanders come to us and help us,” he cautioned. “Tell me what's important right now.”
Prigozhin and his Wagner forces “will tell you about weapons: which worked well, which did not. And tactics, and weapons, and how to attack, how to defend. It's priceless. This is what we need to take from the Wagnerites,” Lukashenko said.
Prirogzhin, as we wrote yesterday, will still maintain a significant presence in Africa. But as Prigozhin plans to turn over his weapons to the Russian Defense Ministry, it appears that Wagner itself may be disbanded as an autonomous force in the coming days, The Wall Street Journal noted Tuesday. What happens then to his operations in Africa and Syria remains unknown.
Meanwhile, in Moscow today, Shoigu was present at two events with Putin. One was an awards ceremony for troops the Russian president said helped prevent the mutiny and the other was at the Defense Ministry, where he accepted Putin's congratulations.
During a ceremony at the Cathedral Square of the Kremlin in Moscow, Putin thanked troops from the Russian Armed Forces and National Guard as well as personnel from the Federal Security Service, the Interior Ministry and the Federal Guard Service.
“They are the ones who, together with their comrades-in-arms, at a time of challenge for the country, threw themselves in the way of trouble which would have inevitably led to chaos,” Putin said. “You have defended the constitutional order, as well as the life, security and freedom of our citizens, steering our Motherland clear from upheavals and de facto stopping a civil war in its tracks.”
As a result of their work, Putin said that “we did not have to withdraw any combat troops from the special military operation zone,” to deal with the Prigozhin mutiny.
Putin also honored the pilots who “lost their lives while confronting the mutineers. They held their ground and fulfilled their orders and their military duty with honor.”
Putin later addressed Defense Ministry personnel, saying “I want us all to understand what happened and what could have happened if you hadn’t done what you did and hadn’t fulfilled your military duty and hadn’t shown loyalty to your oath and the Russian people.”
He also addressed Wagner, saying that while respected in Russia, they were also well-funded by the state.
“As for this Wagner Group, you know, we have always treated these fighters and commanders with a lot of respect because they did demonstrate courage and heroism,” said Putin. “Soldiers and officers from the Russian Army, as well as volunteers operated in combat with the same dedication, heroism and self-sacrifice. But those who served and worked for this company, Wagner, were respected in Russia.”
Wagner “got all its funding from us, from the Defence Ministry, from the state budget,” said Putin.
Between May 2022 and May 2023 alone, Wagner received more than 86 billion rubles ($1.1 billion) from the state to pay military salaries and bonuses, Putin said. But while the state covered all of the Wagner Group’s funding needs, Putin said Prigozhin, through his Concord company, earned another 80 billion rubles ($1.1 billion) as the army’s food and canteen provider.
“I do hope that no one stole anything in the process or, at least, did not steal a lot. It goes without saying that we will look into all of this,” said Putin, perhaps hinting at future investigations into Prigozhin.
In the wake of Prigozhin's mutiny attempt, Russia's National Guard may be given additional heavy weapons, including tanks, the official Russian TASS news agency reported Tuesday.
"This issue is pressing now," Russian National Guard Director Viktor Zolotov told journalists on Tuesday. "We don't have tanks and other heavy weapons. We will be introducing them into the troops."
The timing of that, however, will depend on funding, said Zolotov, adding that the issue has already been discussed with Putin.
Zolotov also talked about how Wagner troops were able to advance quickly toward Moscow because his troops were concentrating on protecting the capital itself.
It was also reported on Tuesday that U.S. officials have concluded that Prigozhin's stated reasons for marching on Moscow – that he was reacting to an attack by Russian forces on his troops – was a lie.
"Prigozhin had been plotting ways to reverse his fortunes in the face of waning power and came up with a plan to claim his forces had been bombed, which he would then use to justify actions against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian defense leaders," according to ABC News, citing a senior official.
As we wrote about yesterday, the issue had more to do with the Russian Defense Ministry ordering that Wagner troops be signed over to its control.
There are also Wagner troops remaining in Ukraine, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon's top spokesman, told reporters, including from The War Zone Tuesday. But he declined to offer any specifics.
Ryder also told The War Zone that he could not comment on what, if any trouble, Prigozhin might cause for Ukraine while he is in Belarus.
"I'm not going to speculate," said Ryder. "Obviously, Wagner has already inflicted enough damage inside Ukraine, I think that's well known. Just take a look at Bakhmut. But in terms of what the future portends again, I'm just not going to get into hypotheticals or speculate."
Still, there was no indication at the moment, he added, of any additional military activity by Wagner in Belarus that presents a threat.
As for what Prigozhin and his Wagner group might do next in Africa and elsewhere, Ryder said that was something the U.S. will continue to watch.
"It's a very dangerous organization and wherever they operate, they bring with them death, destruction, deceit, criminal activity," said Ryder. "This is why the United States has designated them as a transnational criminal organization and the U.S. government has imposed significant sanctions on Wagner actors and facilitators to include Africa."
As for how what happened over the weekend will play out in places like Africa, "time will tell," said Ryder. "I don't have an answer to that question right now. But again, the key point here is that Wagner has been a significant and dangerous actor for a while."
U.S. Africa Command, he added, continues to work with African nations to help defend themselves against threats from Wagner as well as other groups like Al-Shabab.
Though U.S. officials urged Ukraine not to attack inside Russia during the mutiny attempt, officials in Kyiv say they did try to use the chaos to their advantage.
“When planning offensive actions in the east, our military took into account the fact of contradictions between Wagner and the current Russian authorities,” Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Tuesday on her Telegram channel.
On Tuesday, Prigozhin remained uncommonly quiet. But though he is an exile of sorts in Belarus, it is clear that we have likely not heard that last about, or from him. We will update this story when more information about him comes to light.
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