It should come as no surprise that three inveterate liars with appalling human rights records in the treatment of their own people have grossly differing accounts of what they agreed to two weeks ago to avert a catastrophic civil war in Russia.
Alexander Lukashenko, among the world’s longest-reigning dictators after 29 years as president of Belarus, claimed to have negotiated a peaceful end to mercenary warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin’s armed mutiny on June 24 that came within 120 miles of rolling into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
In a rare moment on the world stage for a leader long considered Putin’s lackey, Lukashenko grabbed international headlines after convincing Prigozhin to turn back his armored column and take safe refuge in Belarus. In return, Putin agreed to drop prosecution of the insurrection leader for treason, according to the Belarusian leader.
Putin has said little in the wake of the most serious challenge to his power in his 23 years as Kremlin leader. And Prigozhin, except for an audio tape of unverified authenticity the day after he stood down his rebellion, has not been seen in public or heard from in the ominous aftermath of his failed coup.
Lukashenko changed the narrative on how the threat of Russian-on-Russian violence was thwarted when he gathered foreign journalists and his own regime-friendly press on Thursday.
Basking in the international spotlight, Lukashenko said Prigozhin was not in Belarus, that he was known to be in his home city of St. Petersburg in Russia that morning. The mercenary chief may have since moved on to Moscow, Lukashenko speculated. He said he’d offered Prigozhin’s private militia, the Wagner Group, a new headquarters in Belarus but Wagner’s leader had “a different vision” for the future of his estimated 50,000 fighters.
Putin, Prigozhin and Lukashenko all have much to lose if the fiction of having peacefully resolved the Wagner mutiny unravels and exposes serious rifts still threatening Russian stability under Putin.
Asked about the reports that Prigozhin was not living in exile in Belarus, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov declined to answer but responded with the implausible claim that Putin’s government is not following the movements of the insurrectionist.
“We have neither the ability nor the desire to do so,” Peskov told journalists in Moscow according to The New York Times and other Western media.
The Washington Post quoted an unidentified St. Petersburg businessman as confirming Prigozhin’s return to his home to reclaim money and weapons seized by Russian security services in raids on his office and lavish apartment.
“It’s not the end of Prigozhin,” the businessman told the newspaper on condition of anonymity. “They returned all his money to him. More than this, today they even gave back to him his honorary pistol, the Glock, and another weapon. He came to take it himself.”
If any of the post-mutiny reports on Prigozhin’s whereabouts are true, that would represent a stunning departure from Putin’s response to far less serious challenges to his power. Defectors living in foreign exile have been poisoned by stealth agents exacting Putin’s revenge, as in the 2006 case of former FSB intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko who died of radiation poisoning from a substance slipped into his tea at a London hotel. Putin critics, some little known outside Russia, have suffered fatal falls out of upper-story windows. Political opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza — Russian patriots fighting to wrest their country from Putin’s repressive grip — are jailed far from Moscow and allowed few visits.
For months before the armed mutiny, Prigozhin spewed fury and stinging criticism of the Kremlin’s warfighting strategy, calling Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov corrupt and incompetent. In one of the last videotaped rants against Putin’s defense chiefs, Prigozhin lashed out at the purported reason for invading Ukraine. Neo-Nazis were not running the Ukrainian government in Kyiv, as Putin claimed when he launched his invasion, Prigozhin told his Russian social media audiences. And he praised the fierce Ukrainian resistance to Putin’s aggression as heroic and effective defense of their country.
Putin has faced serious blowback among his pro-war political allies for letting Prigozhin and his mercenaries off the hook for a challenge that could have ignited a fratricidal war across the Russian federation. Hardliners in the Kremlin and among the oligarchs in control of Russian resources feared Prigozhin’s condemnation of the pretext and execution of Putin’s war on Ukraine could break open stifled public opposition to the 16-month-old invasion that has cost tens of thousands of young Russian lives with little territorial gain to show for it.
The Kremlin leader has held power for more than two decades by nurturing public apathy toward domestic politics and Putin’s meddling in foreign elections and armed conflicts. As long as Russians could work, study and enjoy homelife in peace, they could tune out a dysfunctional leadership thriving on corruption in the trade of Russia’s lucrative natural resources. Prigozhin’s mutiny and a wave of recent drone attacks by Russian militias on Russian cities have shattered the nurtured complacency in Putin’s country that the war in Ukraine doesn’t affect them.
On the day that Lukashenko disclosed Prigozhin was roaming free in Russia, Putin critic and deceived Wall Street investor Bill Browder called Prigozhin a threat to Putin’s grip on power and as such a dead man walking.
“Prigozhin committed the cardinal sin of making Putin look weak,” Browder told CNN, speculating that the Kremlin didn’t know the whereabouts of the mutiny leader. If they could find him, Browder said of the Kremlin, “they would love to kill him.”
Much as he is loath to admit it, Putin needs Prigozhin’s mercenaries, who are widely hailed as the most effective fighters in the unprovoked Russian war in Ukraine. It took nine months, but it was Wagner units that finally captured the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut this past spring, a Pyrrhic victory that cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides and left the depopulated town in ruins.
Lukashenko’s vulnerability lies in his dependence on Russia for economic, military and political support. The Belarus leader’s claim to have won 80% of the strongly contested 2020 presidential election sparked massive demonstrations. Opposition challenges to the vote’s legitimacy persisted for weeks until Putin sent his skilled dissent suppressors to quell Lukashenko’s opponents. Since that contested election three years ago, Lukashenko has been docilely repaying Putin’s political favor by allowing Russian troops to stage Ukraine incursions from his territory and stationing Russian tactical nuclear missiles in Belarus.
For Prigozhin, everything is at stake. His Concord consulting company and its billions of dollars’ worth of contracts to provide food to schools, military units and government operations may already have been seized by the Kremlin. Federal security agents were videotaped last week searching the warlord’s offices and home, with the camera focused on gold bars and stacks of dollar cash worth $6.5 million. The footage played on Russian television for days, narrated by pro-Kremlin commentators pointing out the hypocrisy of Prigozhin’s claim to have marched on the Kremlin to expose the truth of corruption at the highest levels.
Prigozhin’s vulnerabilities may be offset by Putin’s dependence on the Wagner warlord for food provision to millions in schools and the armed forces that cannot be easily replaced in a country under economic sanctions. Wagner earns further billions anihilating the defensive forces fighting brutal regimes in Syria, Mali, Central African Republic and other states where government leaders welcome the authoritarian soldiers of fortune.
There has been no definitive word on whether Wagner forces have returned to the fight in Ukraine after pulling out ahead of their June 23rd seizure of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Southern Command in Rostov-on-Don and the march on Moscow. Ukraine has reported modest gains in recovering lost territory in recent days from the uninspired and ill-equipped Russian government troops now struggling to hold Bakhmut, which was Russia’s only battleground victory this year.
Putin has said little about Prigozhin or his fighters since the mutiny. He hasn’t even uttered the insurrectionist’s name. Instead, he’s been staging meetings in far-flung regions showing himself as fully in charge of a united country and responsible for saving Russians from civil war. He’s left it to his powerful propaganda machine to dismantle Prigozhin’s legacy and cut in half his popularity from 58% to 29% — a residual constituency unlikely to sit for long with the paranoid and vengeful Putin.
There is also little clarity on how many of Prigozhin’s mercenaries have signed contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry to continue fighting the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. It was a Moscow edict that Wagner forces fall under Defense Ministry command by July 1 that pushed the Wagner chief to strike out against Putin’s siloviki, the power ministers heading defense, intelligence and interior forces.
The dribbles of information about post-mutiny posturing by the three endangered nationalists are likely place-holding moves while each figures out how to hold on to their power and influence in a changing security environment that favors none of them in the long run.