Russian mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was notorious for unbridled and profane challenges to authority even before the attempted rebellion that he mounted Saturday. The reported agreement for him to go into exile in Belarus would place him in a country where such behavior is even less acceptable than in his homeland.
Prigozhin on Sunday was uncharacteristically silent as his Wagner private army forces pulled back from Russian cities after a Kremlin announcement that he had agreed to depart for Belarus; it remains unclear whether he’s actually there.
What will Prigozhin find in Belarus?
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko reportedly negotiated the deal, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Saturday that Lukashenko “has been acquainted with Mr. Prigozhin for a long time, at least 20 years."
But Prigozhin's maverick ways are at odds with Lukashenko's harsh repression of dissent and independent media.
In power since 1994, the leader who is often called “Europe's last dictator” launched a brutal crackdown on 2020 protests against his rule. Hundreds were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski.
Under Lukashenko, Belarus became almost umbilically tied to neighboring Russia, agreeing to form a still-in-progress “union state.” Although Belarus' army is not known to have taken part in Russia’s war on Ukraine, the country allows Russia to base troops there that have fought in Ukraine and made a deal this year for deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons. Lukashenko is a vehement ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prigozhin’s stance toward the Kremlin leader is murkier. Even as his fighters moved swiftly toward Moscow on Saturday, Prigozhin did not criticize Putin directly and instead claimed his aim was to oust the Russian defense establishment, which he has denounced as corrupt and incompetent, complaining that it undermined his forces fighting in Ukraine.
What's next for Prigozhin?
“It is not yet clear what Lukashenko is going to do with Prigozhin. I think they don’t have an understanding themselves,” exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press.
“Lukashenko once again has made Belarus a hostage to other people’s games and wars. He is by no means a peacemaker,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
“Prigozhin leaving for Belarus does not mean that Prigozhin will stay there. There's nothing for him to do in Belarus — arrive, exhale, use the corridor and move on,” said Artem Shraibman, a Belarusian political analyst now in exile in Poland.
What's next for Wagner?
The Belarus deal removes Prigozhin’s control of Wagner, but it’s unclear whether any of his fighters would follow him to Belarus, either out of a sense of loyalty or due to dismay with being absorbed into the Russian military as contract soldiers.
“These personnel could potentially sign contracts with the MoD on an individual basis, demobilize in Russia … (or) travel to Belarus in some capacity,” the Institute for the Study of War think tank said in its report on the failed rebellion.
If in Belarus, there would be concerns about whether they could get access to the Russian battlefield nuclear weapons. Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s security council, was worried about them gaining control of Russian weapons as the uprising roiled on Saturday.
“The world will be put on the brink of destruction” if Wagnerites obtain nuclear weapons, Medvedev warned.
Jim Heintz in Tallinn contributed to this report.