By ANNA FRANTS (Associated Press)
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, Belarus’ president said Thursday, raising fresh questions about the agreement that ended President Vladimir Putin’s extraordinary challenge to the regime.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s claim could not be independently verified and the Kremlin declined to comment on Yevgeny Prigozhin’s whereabouts. But Russian media reported that he was recently seen at his offices in St Petersburg.
It was unclear whether Prigozhin’s presence in Russia would violate the deal, which allowed the head of the Wagner Group’s military contractor to move to Belarus in exchange for an end to the rebellion and a promise to leave. amnesty for him and his troops. But reports have signaled that the deal may have allowed him to finalize his business in Russia.
If true, it could suggest that the threat posed by Prigozhin has yet to be fully defused and that the Kremlin is treading carefully with him until it can work out what to do with any troops that may still be able to him. be faithful. Putin said Wagner’s troops could join the Russian army, retire from service or move to Belarus.
But much of the deal, 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 go to Moscow if he wanted, while Wagner’s troops were in their camps. He did not specify the location of the camps, but the Prigozhin mercenaries fought alongside Russian forces in eastern Ukraine before their revolt and also have bases on Russian territory.
He also said that Prigozhin recovered the money and weapons confiscated by Russian authorities.
Asked about Prigozhin’s whereabouts, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov ignored the question, saying the Kremlin had neither the desire nor the means to track his movements – but reiterated that the deal which ended the mutiny was planning his move to Belarus.
Lukashenko said his government had offered Wagner, who sent troops around the world to defend Russia’s interests, the use of Belarusian military camps but the company had not made a final decision.
The Kremlin played down that Prigozhin escaped punishment for his mutiny while other Putin critics were sentenced to long prison terms, exile or even death, saying the deal with Chief Wagner was needed to avoid massive bloodshed.
The Belarusian leader ignored suggestions that Putin might order Prigozhin’s death, saying, “If you think Putin is so vicious and vindictive to finish him off, no, that won’t happen.”
On Wednesday, Russian online newspapers Fontanka and Izvestia published videos and photos from the lavish Prigozhin mansion in Russia’s second-largest city showing piles of cash and gold bars. The images appeared to be part of authorities’ efforts to denigrate Prigozhin, who has portrayed himself as an enemy of corrupt elites, even though he owed his wealth to Putin.
A picture hung in the mansion showed a row of decapitated heads. In a posted image, an oversized souvenir hammer could also be seen with the inscription “for important negotiations”. The sledgehammer became a symbol of Wagner after reports surfaced that his troops used the tool to beat defectors to death.
Russian media also published a collection of selfies that showed him posing with various wigs, fake beards and foreign uniforms, an apparent reflection of Wagner’s deployments in Syria and several African countries.
When asked if Prigozhin and his mercenaries would eventually move to Belarus, Lukashenko evasively replied that it would depend on the decisions of Chief Wagner and the Russian government.
The Belarusian leader said he did not believe the presence of mercenaries in his country would lead to its destabilization and said all Wagner troops there would be required to sign a contract with the Belarusian authorities which would set out the terms and the limits of their actions.
Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich, however, argued that Lukashenko may feel uncomfortable with Wagner’s presence in his territory. “If this structure has rebelled against its master once, it can do so again and again and march on Minsk instead of marching on Moscow,” Karbalevich said.
The Belarusian president has dismissed suggestions that mercenaries could attack Ukraine from Belarusian territory, which Russian troops used as a staging ground before their invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Moscow has also maintained a military presence in Belarus.
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 about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Russian capital. Prigozhin described it as a “march of justice” to oust his longtime enemies – Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Army General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, whom he criticized the handling of the war in Ukraine.
Wagner’s fighters faced little resistance, breaking through occasional roadblocks. They also shot down at least six helicopters and a command post plane, killing at least 10 airmen.
When the deal was made, Chief Wagner ordered his troops back to their camps.
The failed rebellion posed the biggest threat to Putin in his more than two decades in power, exposing his weakness and eroding the Kremlin’s authority. It was not immediately clear whether Shoigu and Gerasimov had retained Putin’s favor after disappearing from public view during the mutiny, but so far they have maintained their positions.
Lukashenko said he warned Prigozhin that he and his troops would be destroyed if they did not reach a quick agreement to end their mutiny and that Belarus would send a brigade to help protect Moscow.
“We had to nip it in the bud. It was very dangerous, as history shows,” Lukashenko said.
Asked about the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, Lukashenko said they were aimed at deterring any aggression against the country. Both Putin and Lukashenko have said some of them have already been moved to Belarus, and the Belarusian leader reiterated on Thursday that “a number” of them have been flown to Belarus and that the remainder would be delivered before the end of the year.
Lukashenko said Russia would consult him on any possible use of these weapons, adding that this could only happen in response to an act of 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.”