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How the Wagner Group mutiny became a Belarusian PR triumph

Grzegorz Szymanowski
June 26, 2023

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko helped Russia end the weekend's revolution led by Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. He's gone from being seen as Moscow's vassal to a regional statesman. Can it last?

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko
Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko in Moscow before the Victory Day Parade on May 9, 2023Image: Vladimir Smirnov/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

He wanted to go all the way to Moscow but has likely ended up in Minsk instead.

Fighters from the infamous Russian private military company the Wagner Group were already on their way to the capital when news came from the government in Belarus.

"[Wagner Group boss] Yevgeny Prigozhin accepted the proposal of the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to stop the movement of armed personnel of the Wagner company inside Russia, and take additional steps to de-escalate tensions," the official statement said. 

Prigozhin's whereabouts are currently unknown but he reportedly left Russia for Belarus, with his departure marking the end of his rebellion. 

A video still of Yevgeny Prigozhin in combat gear from March 23, 2023
Will Prigozhin ever wear a military uniform again? A video still of the Wagner Group leader during the battle for Bakhmut in March 2023Image: Konkord Company Press Service/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

It would apper that Belarusian leader Lukashenko saved Russian President Vladimir Putin from domestic destabilization in the middle of Russia's war on Ukraine.

The Kremlin was grateful to Lukashenko for his efforts, its spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. A commentator on Russian television was more effusive, saying that Lukashenko "deserves a monument in the nicest part of Moscow." 

But how exactly did this surprising turn of events come about — and what role will Belarus play in the near future?

A threat to power in Minsk

Over the course of the revolt, it became clear that Lukashenko would stand by Putin's side. The two heads of state had spoken on the phone at least twice. Lukashenko is said to have offered to work as a mediator because he's known Prigozhin personally for 20 years, sources in the Kremlin said. At the same time, the Belarusian Security Council said that Belarus would remain Russia's ally and that any conflict within Russia would be a gift to the West.

"Lukashenko has an interest in preventing a major crisis in Russia," said Yauheni Preiherman, director of the think tank, the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.

The big concern for the government in Minsk is that fighting in Ukraine could spread to Belarusian territory, he told DW.

Soldiers from the pro-Ukraininan Belarusian Kalinouski regiment during training in Ukraine
Soldiers from the pro-Ukraininan, Belarusian Kalinouski Regiment during training in UkraineImage: DW

This fear appears to be warranted, as evidenced by the appeal launched by Lukashenko opponents from the Kalinouski Regiment, which consists of Belarusian volunteers fighting on the side of the Ukrainian army against Russia.

While Prigozhin was still conducting his mutiny, the regiment declared in a video that they were ready to seize the opportunity and "liberate Belarus from dictatorship and occupation." 

"Lukashenko's interest is to prevent such a thing from happening," Preiherman said.

From supplicant to savior?

Since 1999, Belarus and Russia have been linked in the so-called "Union State of Russia and Belarus" that's based on a treaty from 1997. But Lukashenko has tried to maintain a degree of autonomy from Putin in the past.

"Their relationship has always been quite turbulent and has seen many ups and downs," Preiherman noted.

But Lukashenko has been more reliant on Putin since the summer of 2020, perhaps even earlier. Back then, after rigged presidential elections, Lukashenko faced massive popular protests. Thousands demanded his resignation. But the Kremlin stood by Lukashenko with loans and the announcement of a possible intervention. Lukashenko brutally crushed the democratic protests, whose leaders were arrested or forced into exile.

A massive protests against Lukashenko on October 19, 2020 in Minsk
A massive protest against Lukashenko in October 2020 in MinskImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

But now Putin and Lukashenko have switched roles, so to speak, observes Belarusian human rights activist Olga Karach, head of the Belarusian civil society initiative, Our House.

"Before, Lukashenko was in the role of the supplicant who couldn't restore order in his own country on his own ... Now it's Putin who could only restore order with outside help," she told DW.

Karach believes that the Belarusian leader will also benefit from this in terms of domestic politics. In recent months, there has been much speculation about 68-year-old Lukashenko's alleged poor health. Now, however, it looks like "his authority would increase, especially in the Belarusian security apparatus," she said. This would probably also weaken the Belarusian opposition, Karach added.

Belarusian opposition figures Maksim Znak and Maria Kolesnikova in a Minsk court in 2021
Belarusian opposition figures Maksim Znak and Maria Kolesnikova in a Minsk court in 2021Image: Viktor Tolochko/SNA/imago images

More influence in Moscow

During Russia's war on Ukraine, Lukashenko has been a loyal ally to Putin, allowing Russia to fire rockets on the country from Belarusian territory. After the announcement was made that Russia would be allowed to station nuclear weapons in Belarus, many experts concluded this was yet another sign that Belarus was becoming a Russian "vassal" state.

But recent events could strengthen Lukashenko's position and influence on Russia, the Minsk Dialogue's Preiherman said. "He will have more of a role in Russian domestic and foreign policy. I don't think many people in Moscow and in the Kremlin will like that," he added.

Wagner mercenaries previously arrested in Minsk

Little is known about the relationship between Lukashenko and Prigozhin. But the Belarusian president has certainly experienced his own conflict with the Wagner Group. In July 2020, shortly before the much contested presidential elections in Belarus, 33 fighters — allegedly members of the Wagner Group — were arrested there because they seemed to be behaving in a way that would "destabilize" the situation, local authorities said.

Later on it appeared the arrests were the result of an operation by the Ukrainian secret service. After two weeks, the men were released and deported back to Russia.

Thee are few details about the negotiations that took place between Lukashenko and Prigozhin over the weekend, including whether Prigozhin will remain in Belarus for the long term or go abroad.

A possible mediator?

It seems clear that Lukashenko will be keeping a close eye on the mercenary in his midst. "Prigozhin won't be able to establish himself in Belarus the way he was able to in Russia," Preiherman noted.

Even if Lukashenko has gained some credibility after this episode, he will still be dependent on Russia in the future. Belarus is "shaped by the way the Russian regime develops," Belarusian political analyst Artyom Shraibman wrote on independent local media website, Zerkalo (or "mirror" in English). "And today it [the Russian regime] has suffered the most severe political blow it's had in recent decades. The extent of its fragility, internal hostility and chaos has been exposed."

The biggest advantage that Lukashenko gains from incident is looking like a worthy interlocutor in the region again. The day after Prigozhin's short-lived mutiny, Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, wrote that, if there were to be negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, he wouldn't "rule it out" that Lukashenko might play a role.

The Wagner Group: Russia's shadow mercenary organization

This story was originally published in German.