Prigozhin back in Russia and Wagner deployment unclear, Belarus leader Lukashenko says
PHOTO CAPTION: Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen speaking in this still image taken from video released on May 5, 2023. (Reuters)
By Guy Faulconbridge
MINSK (Reuters) -The mutinous head of Russia's Wagner group is no longer in Belarus and it is not clear if his fighters will move there, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said on Thursday, raising questions about the deal that ended last month's revolt.
Lukashenko said on June 27 that Yevgeny Prigozhin had arrived in Belarus as part of the deal that defused the crisis, which had seen the Wagner fighters briefly capture the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and then march towards Moscow.
But Lukashenko, who brokered the deal, said on Thursday that Prigozhin was now in St Petersburg, Russia's second city, or may have moved on to Moscow.
"He is not on the territory of Belarus," Lukashenko told a press conference in Minsk.
Lukashenko also said the question of Wagner units relocating to Belarus had not been resolved, and would depend on decisions by Russia and by Wagner.
"Whether they will be in Belarus or not, in what quantity, we will figure it out in the near future," he said.
His comments highlighted the huge uncertainties surrounding the terms and implementation of the deal that ended the mutiny, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has said could have plunged the country into civil war.
Prigozhin's men have spearheaded much of the fighting in Ukraine but he has also accused Russia's top brass of corruption and incompetence. Prigozhin cast the June 24 "march of justice" on Moscow as a protest against the military leadership.
Russian state TV on Wednesday launched a fierce attack on Prigozhin and said an investigation into what had happened was still being vigorously pursued.
A business jet linked to Prigozhin left St Petersburg for Moscow on Wednesday and headed to southern Russia on Thursday, according to flight tracking data, but it was not clear if the mercenary chief was on board. It was later tracked flying north again.
If Prigozhin is able to return to Russia with impunity, it would raise new questions about Putin's authority in the wake of the brief mutiny that marked the gravest challenge to his 23 years in power.
Putin told Asian leaders this week that the episode had shown that Russian society is more united than ever. The Kremlin has declined to engage in discussion of Prigozhin's whereabouts.
"No, we do not follow his movements, we have neither the ability nor the desire to do so," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in answer to a reporter's question on Thursday.
He confirmed that Prigozhin's departure for Belarus was one of the conditions of the deal. "This was discussed. Both we and Alexander Grigoryevich (Lukashenko) have spoken about this," he said.
Lukashenko said he had agreed to meet Putin in the near future and would discuss the Prigozhin situation with him. Peskov said no date had been set.
Prigozhin is "absolutely free" and Putin will not "wipe him out", Lukashenko said.
Lukashenko added that an offer for Wagner to station some of its fighters in Belarus - a prospect that has alarmed neighbouring NATO countries - still stands.
"We are not building camps. We offered them several former military camps that were used in Soviet times, including near Osipovichi. If they agree. But Wagner has a different vision for deployment, of course, I won’t tell you about this vision," the Belarusian leader told reporters.
Lukashenko also said he did not see a Wagner presence in Belarus as a risk to his country and did not believe Wagner would ever take up arms against it. He said the Belarusian army could benefit from Wagner's expertise.
Belarus is a close ally of Russia and last month began taking delivery of Russian tactical nuclear weapons that Putin has said are intended to deter the West from attempts to inflict a "strategic defeat" on Russia.
The transfer will be completed by the end of the year, Lukashenko said.
In comments addressed to the West, Lukashenko said: "We are not going to attack anyone with nuclear weapons. (As long as) you don't touch us, forget nuclear weapons. But if you commit aggression, the response will be instantaneous. The targets have been defined."
(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, writing by Mark TrevelyanEditing by Gareth Jones)