MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The mercenary leader who led a short-lived mutiny against the Kremlin is in Russia and his troops are in their field camps, the president of Belarus said Thursday, raising new questions about the deal that ended the extraordinary challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s claim could not be independently verified, and the Kremlin refused to comment on Yevgeny Prigozhin’s whereabouts. But Russian media have reported he was recently seen at his offices in St. Petersburg.
It was not clear if Prigozhin’s presence in Russia would violate the deal, which allowed the head of the Wagner Group military contractor to move to Belarus in exchange for ending the rebellion and a promise of amnesty for him and his troops. But the reports signaled that the agreement may have allowed him to finalize his affairs in Russia.
If that’s true, it could suggest the threat posed by Prigozhin has not yet been fully defused and that the Kremlin is treading carefully with him until it can figure out what to do with troops who may still be loyal to him. Putin has said that Wagner troops can join the Russian military, retire from service or move to Belarus.
In this handout image taken from a video released by Prigozhin Press Service on Friday, May 5, 2023, head of Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin stands in front of multiple bodies lying on the ground in an unknown location. A week after the mutiny raised the most daunting challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s rule in over two decades, key details about the uprising remain shrouded in mystery. (Prigozhin Press Service via AP, File)
But much about the the agreement, which was brokered by Lukashenko, remains murky.
Last week, Lukashenko said the mercenary leader was in Belarus, but on Thursday he told international reporters that Prigozhin was in St. Petersburg and could also travel to Moscow if he wishes, while Wagner’s troops were in their camps. He did not specify the location of the camps, but Prigozhin’s mercenaries fought alongside Russian forces in eastern Ukraine before their revolt and also have bases on Russian territory.
He also said that Prigozhin has been given back the cash and weapons that were confiscated by Russian authorities.
Asked where Prigozhin is, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov shrugged off the question, saying that the Kremlin has neither the desire nor the means to track his movements — but reaffirmed that the deal that ended the mutiny envisaged his move to Belarus.
Lukashenko said his government offered Wagner, which has sent troops around the world to fight for Russia’s interests, the use of Belarusian military camps but that the company had not made a final decision.
The Kremlin has played down the fact that Prigozhin escaped punishment for his mutiny while other Putin critics have been met with harsh prison sentences, exile or even death, saying that the deal with the Wagner chief was necessary to avoid massive bloodshed.
The Belarusian leader shrugged off suggestions that Putin might order Prigozhin killed, saying: “If you think that Putin is so vicious and vindictive to finish him off, no, it’s not going to happen.”
On Wednesday, Russian online newspapers Fontanka and Izvestia posted videos and photos of Prigozhin’s opulent mansion in Russia’s second-largest city that showed stacks of cash and gold bullion. The images appeared to be part of the authorities’ efforts to denigrate Prigozhin, who has postured as an enemy of corrupt elites even though he has owed his wealth to Putin.
A photo hanging in the mansion showed a lineup of decapitated heads. In one published image, an oversized souvenir sledgehammer could also be seen with the inscription “for important negotiations.” The sledgehammer has become a symbol of Wagner after reports its troops used the tool to beat defectors to death.
The Russian media also published a collection of selfies that showed him posing in various wigs, fake beards and foreign uniforms, an apparent reflection of Wagner’s deployments to Syria and several African countries.
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The Belarusian military has shown off a field camp it has offered to Russia’s Wagner military contractor if it relocates to Belarus under a deal that ended its mutiny.
Asked if Prigozhin and his mercenaries would eventually move to Belarus, Lukashenko answered evasively that it would depend on the decisions of the Wagner chief and the Russian government.
The Belarusian leader said he doesn’t think the mercenaries’ presence in his country would lead to its destabilization and said any Wagner troops there would be required to sign a contract with Belarusian authorities that would outline conditions and limitations of their actions.
Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich argued, however, that Lukashenko could feel uneasy about Wagner’s presence on his turf. “If this structure rebelled against its master once, it can do it again and again and march on Minsk instead of marching on Moscow,” Karbalevich said.
The Belarusian president dismissed suggestions that the mercenaries could attack Ukraine from Belarusian territory, which Russian troops used as a staging ground ahead of their invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Moscow has also maintained a military presence in Belarus.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko listens, during his meeting with foreign correspondents, in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, July 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
During their short revolt, Prigozhin’s mercenaries quickly swept through the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and captured the military headquarters there before marching to within about 200 kilometers (125 miles) of the Russian capital. Prigozhin described it as a “march of justice” to oust his longtime foes — Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the military’s general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, whose handling of the war in Ukraine he criticized.
The Wagner fighters faced little resistance, smashing occasional roadblocks. They also downed at least six helicopters and a command post aircraft, killing at least 10 airmen.
When the deal was struck, the Wagner chief ordered his troops to return to their camps.
The abortive rebellion represented the biggest threat to Putin in his more than two decades in power, exposing his weakness and eroding the Kremlin’s authority. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Shoigu and Gerasimov retained Putin’s favor after vanishing from public view during the mutiny, but so far they have kept their positions.
Lukashenko said he warned Prigozhin that he and his troops would be destroyed if they failed to make a quick deal to end their mutiny and that Belarus would send a brigade to help protect Moscow.
“It was necessary to nip it in the bud. It was very dangerous, as history shows,” Lukashenko said.
Asked about the deployment of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, Lukashenko said they are intended to deter any aggression against the country. Putin and Lukashenko both have said that some of them already have been moved to Belarus, and the Belarusian leader reaffirmed Thursday that a “certain number” of them have been flown to Belarus and the rest will be delivered before the year’s end.
Lukashenko said that Russia would consult him on any possible use of those weapons, adding that it could only happen in response to an act aggression by NATO against Russia or Belarus.
The Belarusian leader noted that “these weapons serve strictly defensive purposes.”
He added: “Don’t touch us, and we will never use these deadly weapons.”