Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed on June 6 that the leader of Russia's Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was still in Russia with thousands of fighters, but dismissed speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin would have Prigozhin killed, Reuters reports.
Lukashenko played a crucial role in brokering a deal to end a mutiny that saw Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries briefly capture the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, which posed a significant challenge to Putin's 23-year-long rule. The mutiny lasted less than a day and ended after Lukashenko claimed to have brokered a deal. The agreement stipulated that Prigozhin would disband his mercenaries and relocate to Belarus, in exchange for Putin dropping charges against him.
Yet Lukashenko's comments on June 6 have raised questions about the status of the deal. Prigozhin was reported to have checked into a luxury hotel in Minsk on June 25, but those reports were never confirmed. His fighters are also thought to still be in Russia, leaving open the possibility that they might not move to Belarus as originally intended.
"He is in Petersburg... perhaps he went to Moscow this morning," Lukashenko said adding that Russian security services were monitoring Prigozhin closely.
Nevertheless, Lukashenko maintained that the terms of deal had been fulfilled, and he reiterated his offer to host the Wagner group in Belarus. This prospect has alarmed neighbouring Nato countries, but Lukashenko stated that he would discuss the matter with Putin shortly.
Since the insurrection, speculation has been rife that the Kremlin will take its revenge and assassinate Prigozhin, possibly by using the Novichok poison that has been used in other attempted killings.
"If you think Putin is so malicious and vindictive that he will 'wipe him out' tomorrow – to say it in Russian – no, this will not happen," Lukashenko told reporters at a meeting in the presidential palace in Minsk, as cited by Reuters.
Lukashenko acknowledged that some individuals in the Kremlin may want Prigozhin dead, but said that an assassination attempt on the military company leader could spark a civil war, and emphasised that Putin would not take such action.
"The fighters of the Wagner group are at their camps – their permanent camps – those where they have been located since they left the front." The main Wagner camp is situated in Molkino near Krasnodar, in southern Russia, Reuters reports.
Prigozhin had previously stated that his mutiny was not aimed at toppling Putin but rather at settling scores with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. Prigozhin did not respond to a request for comment.
When asked if Putin had been weakened by the crisis, Lukashenko dismissed the question. He also declined to discuss the motives behind the mutiny, remarking that the situation had become so serious that Belarusian special forces were prepared to assist in defending Moscow.
Lukashenko affirmed that Putin and he had agreed to defend Moscow together, emphasising their long-standing relationship. He stated that Wagner had been founded by Russia's GRU military intelligence service and was considered Russia's best fighting force.
Lukashenko has said that Wagner would move to Belarus, where they would be used to train the Belarusian military; however, Lukashenko said a final decision would be made by the Kremlin and Wagner itself. He mentioned that he had spoken to Prigozhin over the phone on July 5 and noted that Putin was keeping his word.
Lukashenko confirmed earlier comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the Kremlin intended to continue to work with Wagner, which has extensive military operations in Africa that are useful to the Kremlin as a plank of its foreign policy. Lukashenko also suggested that the mercenaries could potentially fight on the most challenging fronts in Ukraine as a way to atone for their perceived sins.
The Kremlin has refrained from discussing Prigozhin's whereabouts. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed that Prigozhin's departure for Belarus was one condition of the deal but stated that they neither had the ability nor the desire to track his movements.