Russian mercenary Prigozhin is in Belarus, Lukashenko says

Published June 27, 2023
Founder of Wagner private mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin speaks inside the headquarters of the Russian southern army military command center, which is taken under control of Wagner PMC, according to him, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia in this still image taken from a video released on June 24. — Reuters
Founder of Wagner private mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin speaks inside the headquarters of the Russian southern army military command center, which is taken under control of Wagner PMC, according to him, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia in this still image taken from a video released on June 24. — Reuters

Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko confirmed Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led a mutiny in Russia over the weekend, will be in Belarus on Tuesday under a deal that ended his revolt.

“I can see Prigozhin is already flying on the plane. Yes, indeed, today he is in Belarus,” Lukashenko said in a meeting with Belarusian officers, according to state media.

It was not clear if the Wagener leader had already arrived in Belarus or was still in the air.

Prigozhin, a 62-year-old former petty thief who rose to become Russia’s most powerful mercenary, was last seen in public when he left the southern Russian city of Rostov on Saturday, shaking hands and quipping that he had “cheered up” people.

Flightradar24 showed an Embraer Legacy 600 business jet appeared in Rostov region at 0232 GMT and began a descent at 0420 GMT near Minsk.

The identification codes of the aircraft matched those of a jet linked by the United States to Autolex Transport, which is linked to Prigozhin by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control that enforces sanctions.

Under a deal mediated by Lukashenko on Saturday to halt a mutiny by Prigozhin’s mercenary fighters, Prigozhin was meant to move to Belarus.

In an address to the nation late on Monday, Putin said the leaders of what he called the “armed mutiny” had betrayed Russia and the Russian people but thanked the army, law enforcement and special services for resisting the mutineers.

The 70-year-old Kremlin chief paid tribute to pilots killed during the mutiny and said he had ordered Russian forces to avoid further bloodshed, thanking those mercenaries in Wagner who stepped back from the brink of “armed rebellion” and bloodshed on Saturday.

Prigozhin’s “march for justice”, which he said was aimed at settling scores with Putin’s military top brass whom he cast as treasonous and corrupt, has raised the prospect of turmoil in Russia while undermining Putin’s reputation as unchallenged leader.

Prigozhin said on Monday that the mutiny had been intended not to overthrow Russia’s government but to register a protest over what he said was its ineffectual conduct of the war in Ukraine.

“We did not have the goal of overthrowing the existing regime and the legally elected government,” he said in an 11-minute audio message released on the Telegram messaging app.

The Federal Security Service said it had dropped a criminal case against Prigozhin for armed mutiny while the defence ministry said Wagner group was preparing to hand over its heavy military equipment to the army.

Wagner’s future

Just hours after casting the mutineers as traitors on Saturday, Putin agreed to a deal to drop criminal charges against them in exchange for their return to camps, with Prigozhin and some of his fighters to move to Belarus.

It is not yet clear whether Wagner — created to fight proxy wars for the Kremlin in a deniable form — will survive the mutiny, and if it does, what it might do next.

Prigozhin, who has bragged about meddling in US elections, said last week his fighting force was 25,000 strong.

With strong ties to Russian military intelligence (GRU), Wagner has been able to recruit some of Russia’s best special forces soldiers with significant cash salaries and generous payouts for families of fallen soldiers.

One option, if Wagner survives, would be for it to return to Africa — where it has gained a fearsome reputation especially in Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali — or to attack Ukraine from the north, opening up a new Russian front.

Speaking from the Kremlin on Monday, Putin vowed to stand by his promise to allow Wagner fighters to leave for Belarus, though he did not mention Prigozhin by name.

“You have the opportunity to continue serving Russia by signing a contract with the ministry of defence or other law enforcement agencies, or to return to your family and friends,” Putin said.

Putin was shown on state television holding a late-night meeting with top security and military officials, including Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, the focus of Prigozhin’s wrath.

Shoigu stood with soldiers on Tuesday on Cathedral Square in the Kremlin as Putin addressed them and again praised their loyalty and courage in standing in opposition to the mutiny.

Putin said that the finances of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s catering firm would be investigated after his mutiny, adding that Wagner and its founder had received almost $2 billion from Russia in the past year.

He said he had always respected Wagner’s fighters, but that the fact was the group had been “fully financed” from the state budget.

He said it had received 86bn roubles ($1bn) from the defence ministry between May 2022 and May 2023.

In addition, Prigozhin’s Concord catering company made 80bn roubles from state contracts to supply food to the Russian army, Putin said.

“I do hope that, as part of this work, no one stole anything, or, let’s say, stole less, but we will, of course, investigate all of this.”

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