Having led an armed rebellion in Russia that sent shockwaves across the world, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was meant to relocate to Belarus as part of a deal brokered by the ex-Soviet nation’s president, Alexander Lukashenko.
Both Lukashenko and Prigozhin have for years held strong ties with President Vladimir Putin.
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But last month’s mutiny threw the top mercenary’s relations with the Russian leader into question and, so it seemed, he was exiled.
Tensions had come to a head after Prigozhin raged for months at Russia’s top brass in foul-mouthed diatribes, accusing them of incompetence in their war efforts in Ukraine. He cast his Wagner fighters as leading on the battlefields, before marching towards Moscow.
On Thursday, however, Lukashenko told reporters that the Wagner boss was back in Russia. The details were vague.
“Yevgeny Prigozhin is in St Petersburg … Where was he this morning? Maybe he went to Moscow, or some other place. But he is not in Belarus,” Belarusian state news agency Belta quoted Lukashenko as saying.
According to some reports in Russian media, Prigozhin was in Russia to finalise his affairs there. The Kremlin said it was not following his movements, but confirmed the Wagner boss’s departure for Belarus was part of the deal negotiated by Lukashenko.
Al Jazeera spoke to Pavel Felgenhauer, a defence and military analyst based in Moscow, about the latest uncertainties surrounding the Russia-Belarus-Wagner scandal.
Al Jazeera: Wasn’t the Wagner chief supposed to stay in Belarus?
Pavel Felgenhauer: [Prigozhin] didn’t really [leave] from Russia, he had made a brief visit to Belarus and then returned, so he’s not in exile there.
Al Jazeera: But as part of the deal brokered by Belarus, surely Prigozhin was meant to stay out of Russia, where he recently led an armed rebellion?
Felgenhauer: Apparently not. The deal was that he would move his base there, maybe in the future, but immediately, right now, not.
There is, I would say, a ceasefire between Prigozhin and the Kremlin, a freeze of the situation that was agreed together with President Lukashenko of Belarus. This is an uneasy ceasefire, but both sides are more or less holding it.
Prigozhin is travelling in Russia, doing his business.
Al Jazeera: Only a few days ago, his business involved turning his thousands of armed men towards the Kremlin. Why is Putin allowing this?
Felgenhauer: It’s a ceasefire between Prigozhin and the Kremlin. They retreated from attacking Moscow, but they’re still a credible fighting force, and apparently, the Kremlin is not ready to take them on.
Al Jazeera: In his comments on Thursday, Lukashenko said his offer to station some fighters in Belarus still stands. Will they be moved, in your view?
Felgenhauer: Lukashenko does not know because this is a lot of people and weapons, and the transfer would not be easy to negotiate, so, right now, it’s kind of freezing of the situation as it was on June 24.
Al Jazeera: Weren’t the fighters supposed to hand over their heavy weaponry to the Russian army?
Felgenhauer: There was talk about that, but it’s not clear whether it happened or not yet. I think that’s going to be negotiable.
Al Jazeera: No state tolerates rebel groups unless they can’t defeat them. Is Putin allowing this because he can’t defeat the Wagner Group?
Felgenhauer: Sort of. They are not ready to take them on right now, especially as Ukrainians are counterattacking. The Kremlin is not ready to take on Wagner. They’re keeping the ceasefire negotiated by Lukashenko.
Lukashenko maybe would want these men to move to his country and have his own mercenaries, though there would be a problem – who’s going to pay them? Right now, it’s a frozen situation. The mutiny was not crushed. It ended in a ceasefire, in a balance situation.
Al Jazeera: It appears the Belarusian president was asked on Thursday whether he is worried Wagner might rebel against him. His answer seemed flippant, he said, “Anything can happen in life.” Heads of state don’t usually take such a casual approach to critical matters of national security. Doesn’t that sound strange to you?
Felgenhauer: Well, it is for Western ears. The Wagner Group reminds me of the Landsknecht companies of 16th-century Germany, who could hire themselves to different princes, and that was considered normal, so that’s more or less how it is right now, and Lukashenko would maybe want to have mercenaries to make his regime more stable, but he understands that their loyalty is not to him. Their loyalty is to their own company.
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.