Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has revealed that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, is currently in St. Petersburg, Russia, and not in Belarus as previously believed. Prigozhin’s whereabouts had been unknown since a short-lived rebellion in Russia. Despite a deal that dropped charges against him and offered him relocation to Belarus, Lukashenko stated that Prigozhin is not on Belarusian territory. The Kremlin weighs into speculation by saying that it is not monitoring Prigozhin’s movements. Lukashenko had previously played a role in brokering the deal to end the rebellion and had announced that Prigozhin would be given haven in Belarus. However, tracking of Prigozhin’s private jet revealed flights between St. Petersburg and Moscow; although it remains unclear if Prigozhin was on board, it’s clear the Mercenary leader’s ambitions lie beyond Belarus.
By Sarah Rainsford & Thomas Mackintosh; July 7, 2023
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin – who led a short-lived rebellion in Russia last month – is in Russia and not Belarus, the leader of Belarus says.
Prigozhin’s whereabouts have been a mystery since the mutiny.
Under the deal to end the stand-off, charges against him were dropped and he was offered a move to Belarus.
But on Thursday Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko said: “As for Prigozhin, he’s in St Petersburg. He is not on the territory of Belarus.”
In response to Mr Lukashenko’s remarks the Kremlin said it was “not following” Prigozhin’s movements.
Mr Lukashenko had helped broker the deal to end the mutiny, and just over a week ago said Prigozhin had arrived in Belarus.
The BBC tracked Prigozhin’s private jet flying to Belarus in late June, and returning to Russia the same evening.
It has since made several flights between St Petersburg and Moscow – although it is not clear if Prigozhin has been on board. The BBC also can’t verify Mr Lukashenko’s claim about the Wagner leader’s current location.
On Thursday Mr Lukashenko added that “as far as I know” the rest of the Wagner fighters were still at their bases – which could include eastern Ukraine or a training base in Russia’s Krasnodar region.
The Belarus leader said an offer for Wagner to station some of its fighters in Belarus – a prospect that has alarmed neighbouring Nato countries – still stands and he has offered several Soviet-era military sites for their use.
“But Wagner have a different vision,” he said, adding: “Of course I won’t tell you about that.”
“At present, the issue of their relocation has not been resolved.”
The Wagner Group is a private army of mercenaries that has been fighting alongside the regular Russian army in Ukraine.
In his address Mr Lukashenko said he was not concerned about having Wagner fighters in Belarus, adding they would be in the country on “certain conditions”.
“The main condition is that if we need to activate them for the defence of our country, then that will be done instantly, in any direction,” Mr Lukashenko said as he praised Wagner’s “experience”.
But, he dismissed any potential threat of a Wagner-led mutiny in Belarus.
“All sorts of things happen in life, but I don’t see that situation for now.
“If they come here, we will pay close attention to them,” the Belarusian leader said.
Mr Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994 and is widely thought to have rigged 2020 elections to maintain power.
On Wednesday, Russian state TV appeared to turn on Prigozhin, with commentators across several networks attacking the Wagner Group mutiny as a premeditated act of treachery.
On NTV, anchors concentrated on Prigozhin’s character, portraying him as a greedy and violent petty thief and referring to his past as being “rich in criminality”.
On Rossiya 1 – one of Russia’s most popular networks – hosts called for Prigozhin to face “accountability” for his rebellion and shared images from what officials said was a raid on his home in St Petersburg.
One clip showed a large stash of weapons – including assault rifles, pistols and ammunition – laid out on a bed.
In other clips, large piles of cash and gold bars, wigs and fake passports belonging to the Wagner chief were shown. Footage of a sledgehammer allegedly belonging to Prigozhin – likely referring to the one used to kill a Wagner deserter several months ago – was broadcast.
However, some Telegram channels associated with the Wagner Group have claimed that the videos were staged and the house in question does not belong to the mercenary boss.
Prigozhin’s mutiny saw Wagner mercenaries cross from field camps in Ukraine into the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, seizing command of some military facilities.
Wagner fighters then travelled north towards Moscow, prompting the Kremlin to introduce tighter security in many regions, including the capital.
Russian President Vladimir Putin later said Russian pilots were killed during the mutiny and it also appears to be the case that several aircraft were destroyed.
Mr Putin initially accused the group of treason, but under the deal that brought an end to the mutiny, Prigozhin was promised security and the Russian criminal case against Wagner was dropped.
Its fighters were told they could either sign regular army contracts, go home or head to Belarus.
Recent satellite images have shown what looks like tents being erected at a former military base close to Minsk, but there has been no sign yet that this has happened