Prigozhin’s gambit: The future of Wagner in Belarus

Several options await Wagner in Belarus, but none is likely to change the status quo

CORRECTS POSITION OF PUTIN TO AT RIGHT INSTEAD OF AT LEFT – FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speak during their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the resort city of Sochi, Russia, Friday, June 9, 2023. Mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said his troops got as close as 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) from Moscow when he ordered them to turn back under a deal brokered by Belarusian President Lukashenko that granted amnesty to him and of his Wagner Group of private contractors, allowing them to move to Belarus. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka speak during their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the resort city of Sochi, Russia, Friday, June 9
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Gavriil Grigorov

The mutiny staged by the leader of the private military company Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, shook Russia and shocked international observers. The Belarusian autocrat Alyaksandr Lukashenka emerged as an unlikely broker, negotiating an end to the rebellion. But as details slowly emerge about the deal and the possibilities for Wagner’s future in Belarus, there are no likely winners.

One of the main losers is Prigozhin himself, who risked everything: his financial relations with the Russian regime, his military resources, and even his own life. Despite the initial success of the rebellion and the subsequent confusion within the Russian military machine, Prigozhin ultimately had to retreat. While this decision prevented the military destruction of Wagner and minimised bloodshed, it is unlikely to strengthen Prigozhin’s previous position as a trusted commander in the eyes of Russia’s pro-war public and ruling elite. In the end, his risky march on Moscow made him look like a traitor, a loser, and a coward.

Then there is Vladimir Putin. He successfully suppressed the rebellion, maintained his hold on power, and managed to minimise casualties. However, the event exposed the internal contradictions and weaknesses of the Russian system. Prior to 23 June, Putin’s regime seemed relatively monolithic and stable. Now, that stability is far less certain. During those days, Putin faced one of the toughest challenges in decades to his seemingly limitless power and suffered public humiliation in front of the international community.

Compared to these two, Lukashenka appears to have benefitted the most. He served his senior partner in Moscow faithfully by helping him out of trouble, while also signalling to Western leaders that he is a relevant player who they should not disregard entirely.

However, even for Lukashenka the situation is not so rosy. His version of events certainly makes him sound like a bold hero, but his actual role remains unknown. He may have merely acted as a telephone intermediary between Putin and Prigozhin, or he could have played a more sophisticated role as a mediator. Regardless, given Putin’s influence over him, it is difficult to believe that Lukashenka, at a critical moment, attempted to persuade Putin to make concessions to the armed rebels. It is more plausible to imagine that he followed instructions from the Kremlin, simply improvising slightly during his dialogue with the Wagner leader.

Lukashenka will seek to exert complete or partial control over Wagner, asserting his dominance over Prigozhin

The future cooperation between Lukashenka, Wagner, and Prigozhin remains similarly unclear. There is an evident conflict of interests among them. Prigozhin is determined to maintain control over his key resource, Wagner, which provides him with financial gains, security, and political influence. On the other hand, Lukashenka clearly has no intention of harbouring a potential threat; Prigozhin could mount further challenges to Russia – or Belarus – from his new position if left with enough autonomy. Lukashenka will therefore seek to exert complete or partial control over Wagner, asserting his dominance over Prigozhin. These contradictions likely explain the absence of detailed information regarding Wagner’s future in Belarus. Negotiations are ongoing, and Prigozhin’s private jets continue to travel frequently to and from Belarus.

Media reports have featured fresh photographs of a tent camp established on the territory of a former military unit near Asipovichy in central Belarus. According to Belarusian sources, it can accommodate approximately 8,000 individuals. However, the Wagner soldiers themselves have not yet arrived, suggesting a lack of agreement on their status in Belarus and their long-term prospects. It remains a mystery what purpose such a large number of soldiers would serve in Belarus. The Belarusian army is not fighting in Ukraine, and Russian forces are no longer launching attacks on Kyiv from Belarus. Furthermore, the Russian military does not possess sufficient resources for a new campaign against Ukraine from the north. It is also implausible that hired mercenaries would be compensated solely for being housed in a field camp. The nature of the camp and the lack of future ‘employment opportunities’ therefore suggest that the presence of thousands of Wagner soldiers in Belarus, if they ever arrive, will not be a long-term arrangement.

Despite the apparent contradictions, Lukashenka and Prigozhin have potential areas for cooperation. Firstly, Wagner could register as a legal organisation in Belarus. This would likely come at a high cost for Prigozhin, without providing any real guarantees. However, it would spare him from having to sign a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defence and his personal adversary, Sergei Shoigu. For Lukashenka, this deal would be even more advantageous, bringing him money and some legal control over Wagner with few risks: his professed principle of “sometimes laws are not a priority” would absolve him of any responsibility if Wagner violated future agreements.

Secondly, they could join forces in their business endeavours in Africa. Both Prigozhin and Lukashenka have secured lucrative business contracts by corrupting the top political leadership of African countries. Following the mutiny, Wagner’s position in Africa is likely to be weakened, but Lukashenka’s political patronage could help mitigate this effect. In return, the Belarusian authorities could gain access to previously inaccessible African markets through Prigozhin.

Thirdly, Lukashenka could utilise Wagner soldiers for his provocations on the borders of NATO countries and the European Union. Lukashenka has previously exploited Middle Eastern migrants and coerced them to storm the borders of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, and attack border guards, in an attempt to make the EU negotiate with him. Wagner stormtroopers could provide backup for these efforts; it is not unlikely that they may now appear within or leading groups of migrants, intensifying aggression and generating additional tensions.

Finally, Lukashenka could hire a portion of Wagner to defend his regime. Since 2020, he has been establishing a layered defence system aimed at protecting his absolute power. He has obtained guarantees from Moscow that it would come to his military aid if needed. Additionally, he began using Moscow’s threat of stationing nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory to blackmail Western countries, threatening their use if his regime comes under attack. Wagner could play a symbolic and deterrent role as another line of defence, and signal to Lukashenka’s opponents abroad that he will defend himself even if his own army abandons him.

However, all these scenarios remain strictly hypothetical. Considering Belarus’s profound structural dependence on Russia, which has not diminished despite Lukashenka’s tales of his outstanding peacekeeping, decisions regarding Wagner will likely only be made with Moscow’s input. Therefore, in this love triangle of war criminals, Putin still holds the most influential position.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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