The mercenary leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin is in Russia and is a “free man” despite staging a rebellion against Moscow’s military leadership, Belarus’s leader said Thursday, deepening the mystery of where Mr. Prigozhin and his Wagner group stand and what will happen next. to become of them.
President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus told reporters that Mr. Prigozhin had been in St. Petersburg, Russia, since Thursday morning, and then “maybe he went to Moscow, maybe somewhere else, but he is not on the territory of Belarus. “
It was Mr. Lukashenko who brokered an agreement between President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Mr. Prigozhin to end the brief rebellion. He said days later that Wagner’s leader had gone to Belarus, although it is not clear if that actually happened.
Mr. Prigozhin is free for now, Mr. Lukashenko said, though he conceded that he “didn’t know what would happen next,” and he dismissed the idea that Mr. Putin would simply have Mr. Prigozhin, until recently essential. ally, killed.
“If you think that Putin is so evil and vengeful that he will kill Prigozhin tomorrow – no, that will not happen,” he said.
If Mr. Prigozhin — slandered as a traitor in the state media — is in fact free and in Russia less than two weeks after staging what the Kremlin called an attempted coup, it would be one of the more perplexing twists in a story full of them. On Wednesday, a prominent current affairs television program aired video of what it claimed was a police search of his luxury mansion in St. Petersburg, where it said large amounts of cash, guns, passports, wigs and drugs were found. A spokesman for Mr. Prigozhin denied that the house was his.
Some Russian news outlets reported that Mr. Prigozhin was in St. Petersburg on Wednesday or Thursday. A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence, said Wagner’s leader had been in Russia for much of the time since the uprising, but the official said it was unclear whether he had been in Belarus, partly because Mr. Prigozhin apparently uses body doubles to disguise his movements.
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, deflected a question about Mr. Prigozhin’s whereabouts, saying the government had “neither the ability nor the desire” to track his movements.
At a rare press conference with local and foreign journalists at the marble presidential palace in Minsk, Mr Lukashenko, always keen to be seen as an international statesman, clearly relished the spotlight thrown on him by the most dramatic challenge to Mr Putin’s authority. in his 23 years in power. But days after offering refuge to Wagner fighters and their leader in his country, Mr Lukashenko gave no clarity on where they would go or what role they would play.
While Mr. Lukashenko, an autocrat who has ruled his country for 29 years, continues to boast about his mediation and peacemaking, he has also made clear his obedience, even submission, to Russia and Mr. Putin, whom he has repeatedly called “Big Brother.”
“The main question about where Wagner will be deployed and what it will do — it’s not up to me; it depends on Russia’s leadership,” he said. He added that he had spoken with Mr Prigozhin on Wednesday, and that Wagner would continue to “fulfill his obligations to Russia as long as he can”, although he did not elaborate.
Mr Putin has long sought to draw Belarus deeper into Russian political, economic and military orbits. For years, Mr. Lukashenko, whose power depends heavily on managing that relationship, has done well enough to maintain some independence and even tried to build trade ties to the West.
But that faded after Mr. Putin helped him brutally crack down on opposition protests in 2020, beginning a period of heightened repression in which critics of the government were jailed or fled into exile. Under Western sanctions and increasingly treated as an international pariah, Belarus – with nine million people – has become increasingly dependent on Russia – with a population of 143 million – for economic aid, energy, high-tech imports and diplomatic support.
In February, when Mr Putin thanked him for traveling to Moscow for a meeting, Mr Lukashenko, in a remark caught on TV cameras, replied: “As if I couldn’t agree.”
A year ago, Mr. Lukashenko allowed Mr. Putin to launch one thrust of his invasion of Ukraine from Belarusian soil, and this year, he allowed Russia to set up short-range nuclear weapons there. But he has so far resisted efforts to draw Belarus’s military directly into the war.
During the Wagner rebellion, Mr. Lukashenko played mediator, talking to Mr. Prigozhin and Mr. Putin. He later boasted that he had made peace between them, persuading the Wagner leader to step down and the Russian president “not to do anything rash”, such as killing Mr Prigozhin or crushing the rebellion in bloody fashion. His claims could not be verified.
Wagner’s mercenaries made up some of the most brutal and effective units fighting in the Ukraine for Russia, and took the lead in capturing the city of Bakhmut after a long and very brutal battle. But Mr. Putin and his government chose to end Wagner’s independence by requiring its fighters in Ukraine to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense — a major cause of Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion.
Mr. Lukashenko said that all Wagner units in Belarus can be called up to defend the country, and that the group’s agreement to fight for Belarus in the event of war is the main condition for giving it permission to move to the country.
“Their experience will be in high demand,” he said.
Mr Lukashenko also praised the group and signaled that at least some of Wagner’s fighting force could remain intact.
He positioned himself as a power broker who helped solve a crisis, and not for the first time. Early in his news conference Thursday in an ornate, high-ceilinged meeting room, he reminded the dozen or so journalists present that in the very same room he hosted the leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine for peace. talks in 2015.
In 2014, Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and Moscow-backed proxy forces began a separatist war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region — which Russia now claims as its own. An agreement reached in 2015 in Minsk laid out steps – largely ignored in the years that followed – that were supposed to produce a lasting peace, and the fighting in the Donbass, although reduced, did not stop.
In the first weeks of the full-scale invasion last year, Mr Lukashenko invited delegations from Kyiv and Moscow to Belarus but they found no common ground for sustained talks, let alone peace.
Speaking to a small group of reporters at the Independence Palace on Thursday, Mr Lukashenko may be hoping to establish some independence from his benefactors in Moscow, and credibility with the West, while perhaps getting a boost at home, with the population. more interested in peace than joining Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine.
It also presented a patina of normalcy in a country where independent journalism is effectively criminalized. Accreditation for Western journalists is unusual and can often only be obtained when Mr. Lukashenko thinks it is in his interest to talk to them.
Their presence — and their interest in Mr. Lukashenko’s role in the negotiations between Mr. Putin and Mr. Prigozhin — was the subject of national news in Belarus, where the state-run media regularly touts the president’s international stature.
Despite the formality of the scene, where white-gloved attendants poured tea, Mr. Lukashenko, who had a seat at a table with all the journalists present, behaved mostly informally, addressing many reporters by name and joking.
Those from the Belarusian state media asked friendly questions, asking how Belarusian society should prepare to withstand information campaigns organized by the US Department of State or urging him to talk about the government’s efforts to bring children from Russian-occupied Ukraine to summer camps in Belarus — what. Ukrainian prosecutors are researching as a possible war crime.
Mr. Lukashenko largely avoided much tougher questions from foreign journalists, such as whether he regretted allowing Russia to invade from Belarus. Instead, he placed the blame for the invasion on the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.
He also ridiculed journalists who asked about domestic repression, especially in recent years. Viasna, a human rights organization whose founder, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialatski, is behind bars in Belarus, has counted nearly 1,500 political prisoners.
Ahead of the 2020 election, Mr Lukashenko’s government jailed potential candidates to run against him or banned them from appearing on the ballot. After the government claimed Mr. Lukashenko had won 81 percent of the vote, opponents cried fraud, and mass protests began.
Belarusian news outlets that covered the demonstrations were criminalized as “extremist” and just following them or sharing their materials on social media can result in jail time.
Despite its small population, Belarus ranks fifth in the world in the number of imprisoned journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The Association of Belarusian Journalists, itself banned as an “extremist” organization, counts 33 journalists held.
When asked Thursday why a prominent jailed opposition figure, Sergei Tikhonovsky, had not been heard from in months or allowed access to his lawyer, the Belarusian leader appeared to stumble over his last name as if it were unfamiliar to him.
Anatoly Kurmanaev contributed reporting from Berlin, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.