Belarus Leader Lukashenko Says Prigozhin Back in Russia, Wagner Deployment Unclear

By Reuters
July 6, 2023Europe

MINSK—The mutinous head of Russia’s Wagner group is no longer in Belarus and it is not clear if his fighters will move there, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said on Thursday.

Mr. Lukashenko said on June 27 that Yevgeny Prigozhin had arrived in Belarus as part of the deal that defused the crisis, which had seen the Wagner fighters briefly capture the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

But Mr. Lukashenko, who brokered the deal, said on Thursday that Mr. Prigozhin was now in St Petersburg, Russia’s second city, or may have moved on to Moscow.

“He is not on the territory of Belarus,” Mr. Lukashenko told a press conference in Minsk.

Mr. Lukashenko also said the question of Wagner units relocating to Belarus had not been resolved, and would depend on decisions by Russia and by Wagner.

“Whether they will be in Belarus or not, in what quantity, we will figure it out in the near future,” he said.

Russian state TV on Wednesday launched an attack on Mr. Prigozhin and said an investigation into what had happened was still being vigorously pursued.

A business jet linked to Mr. Prigozhin left St Petersburg for Moscow on Wednesday and headed to southern Russia on Thursday, according to flight tracking data, but it was not clear if the mercenary chief was on board. It was later tracked flying north again.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told Asian leaders this week that the episode had shown that Russian society is more united than ever. The Kremlin has declined to engage in discussion of Mr. Prigozhin’s whereabouts.

“No, we do not follow his movements, we have neither the ability nor the desire to do so,” Mr. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in answer to a reporter’s question on Thursday.

He confirmed that Mr. Prigozhin’s departure for Belarus was one of the conditions of the deal. “This was discussed. Both we and Alexander Grigoryevich (Lukashenko) have spoken about this,” he said.

Mr. Lukashenko said he had agreed to meet Mr. Putin in the near future and would discuss Mr. Prigozhin situation with him. Mr. Peskov said no date had been set.

Mr. Prigozhin is “absolutely free” and Mr. Putin will not “wipe him out”, Mr. Lukashenko said.

Mr. Lukashenko added that an offer for Wagner to station some of its fighters in Belarus—a prospect that has alarmed neighbouring NATO countries—still stands.

“We are not building camps. We offered them several former military camps that were used in Soviet times, including near Osipovichi. If they agree. But Wagner has a different vision for deployment, of course, I won’t tell you about this vision,” the Belarusian leader told reporters.

Mr. Lukashenko also said he did not see a Wagner presence in Belarus as a risk to his country and did not believe Wagner would ever take up arms against it. He said the Belarusian army could benefit from Wagner’s expertise.

Belarus is a close ally of Russia and last month began taking delivery of Russian tactical nuclear weapons that Mr. Putin has said are intended to deter the West from attempts to inflict a “strategic defeat” on Russia.

The transfer will be completed by the end of the year, Mr. Lukashenko said.

In comments addressed to the West, Mr. Lukashenko said: “We are not going to attack anyone with nuclear weapons. (As long as) you don’t touch us, forget nuclear weapons. But if you commit aggression, the response will be instantaneous. The targets have been defined.”

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