Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that he warned Russia’s Wagner mercenary chiefs Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin to watch out for possible threats to their lives, and insisted that Wagner fighters would remain in Belarus following the apparent deaths of their leaders in a plane crash.
Lukashenko, who helped broker the deal that saw Wagner fighters retreat peacefully to Belarus following their aborted rebellion in June, said at the time that he had persuaded Putin not to “wipe out” Prigozhin and his mercenary force.
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Commenting on Prigozhin’s apparent death in a plane crash in Russia this week, Lukashenko said on Friday that the Wagner boss had twice dismissed concerns raised about possible threats to his life.
Lukashenko said that during the mutiny, he had warned Prigozhin that he would “die” if he continued to march on Moscow, to which he said Prigozhin had answered: “‘To hell with it – I will die'”.
Then, Lukashenko said, when Prigozhin and Utkin, who helped found Wagner and was also listed as a passenger on the plane that crashed, had come to see him, he had warned them both: “Lads – you watch out”.
It was not exactly clear from Lukashenko’s warnings, which were reported by Belarusian state news agency BelTA, when that conversation took place with the Wagner leaders.
Lukashenko, both an old acquaintance of Prigozhin and a close ally of Russia, said he believed that Putin had nothing to do with the plane crash.
“I know Putin: He is calculating, very calm, even tardy,” Lukashenko said.
“I cannot imagine that Putin did it, that Putin is to blame. It’s just too rough and unprofessional a job,” he said.
The Kremlin said on Friday that Western suggestions that Prigozhin had been killed on its orders were an “absolute lie”, while also declining to definitively confirm the Wagner chief’s death, citing the need to wait for test results.
Lukashenko also said that Wagner fighters would remain in Belarus.
“Wager lived, Wagner is living and Wagner will live in Belarus,” Lukashenko said.
“As long as we need this unit, they will live and work with us,” he said.
Washington, DC-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), said that Lukashenko’s comments on Prigozhin and the deal he struck to end the Wagner rebellion in Russia in June, as well as Putin’s innocence in the Wagner chiefs’ apparent deaths, were to bolster his image with his domestic audience.
“Lukashenko has routinely attempted to portray himself as a sovereign leader despite Russia’s current de facto occupation of the country [Belarus], and he likely hopes to prevent his domestic audience from viewing Putin’s almost certain assassination of Prigozhin as the Kremlin’s unilateral cancellation of agreements that he [Lukashenko] had made with Wagner,” the ISW said.
“Lukashenko likely hoped to underscore the initial deal, and Wagner’s arrival in Belarus as examples of his ability to make high-level security decisions outside of the Kremlin’s dictates,” the ISW added.
3/ #Lukashenko’s likely desire to maintain the appearance of being a sovereign leader appears to have outweighed any such concerns.
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) August 26, 2023