NATO is closely following the movement of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force as well as their boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Western military alliance’s secretary general has said, following revelations that neither the private army’s fighters nor their leader had taken up exile in Belarus.
NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg made his comments on Thursday amid reports that Prigozhin was back in Russia and had not taken up the offer of exile in Belarus, which was agreed after Wagner forces began and ended a 24-hour mutiny against the Russian military leadership on June 24.
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Asked by Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor James Bays to comment on reports that Prigozhin had returned to the Russian city of St Petersburg, Stoltenberg said that NATO had tracked the Wagner leader’s recent travels, which he described as “moving a bit around”.
“On Prigozhin, well, what we can say is that we monitor closely where the Wagner soldiers are moving around, and also where he [Prigozhin] is moving,” Stoltenberg said in Brussels.
“I will not go into the details, but we have seen some preparations for hosting large groups of Wagner soldiers in Belarus. So far we haven’t seen so many of them going to Belarus,” he said.
“And then we have seen Mr Prigozhin moving a bit around,” Stoltenberg said, adding that he would not go into further details.
Prigozhin’s return to Russia was revealed by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday.
Lukashenko – who mediated the exile deal that ended the Wagner mutiny last month – said that after a brief period in Belarus, the Wagner chief had returned to Russia.
“As for Prigozhin, he’s in St Petersburg. He is not on the territory of Belarus,” Lukashenko told reporters.
“Where was he this morning? Maybe he went to Moscow, or some other place. But he is not in Belarus,” Lukashenko said, according to Belarusian state news agency BelTA.
Lukashenko also said that Wagner’s troops were in their camps, but he did not specify the location of the camps. He did say that Wagner troops were offered the use of Belarusian military camps, but that the private armed group had not made a final decision. Wagner maintains camps in Russia and Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.
According to BelTA, Lukashenko said that he plans to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin soon to discuss the Wagner situation, among other topics, and that he did not think there would be “any problems” with Wagner mercenaries continuing to work “in the interests of Russia” despite their recent mutiny.
“One should not lose such a unit despite all the subtle details,” Lukashenko said, according to BelTA.
“I wish the entire army fought as well as these guys. But these are the problems of the Russian Federation and President Putin,” he added.
Prigozhin’s return to Russia
Shortly after the aborted Wagner rebellion in Russia, which saw Wagner fighters come within 200km (124 miles) of Moscow, Stoltenberg said that NATO was preparing for the arrival of Wagner forces in Belarus and that the Western alliance would protect “every ally, every inch of NATO territory” against threats from either “Moscow or Minsk”.
Prigozhin’s return to Russia raises many questions about the deal that ended the Wagner military challenge to Putin’s power.
Asked of the whereabouts of Prigozhin on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov shrugged off the question, saying that Moscow had neither the desire nor the means to track his movements – but reaffirmed that the deal that ended the mutiny envisaged the Wagner boss’s move to Belarus.
Washington DC-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) described Peskov’s statement on Prigozhin as “absurd”, noting that the Russian security services “have the ability to detain Prigozhin or restrict his movements in Russia” if they so wished.
The ISW also said on Thursday that Lukashenko appears to be attempting to distance himself from the exile deal, and is “pinning the responsibility on the Kremlin to enforce the deal”.
“Prigozhin’s ability to freely operate in Russia suggests that Prigozhin is still protected by some security guarantees and/or that the Kremlin continues to prioritize undermining his reputation in Russia over targeting Prigozhin physically or legally,” the ISW said.
While the Kremlin has sought to play down the fact that Prigozhin had escaped punishment for his mutiny so far, Russian state TV launched a fierce attack on the Wagner chief on Wednesday, saying that a criminal investigation of mutiny against Russia’s military leadership was still under way.