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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Lukashenko emerges as biggest winner after Wagner rebellion, analysts say

A photo released by Russian state media showed President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus and President Vladimir V. Putin in Sochi, Russia, earlier this month.

By Valerie Hopkins

Questions remain over the deal that Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian Belarusian leader, is said to have brokered between President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner paramilitary group, to bring Wagner’s armed rebellion in Russia to an end.

As part of the deal, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Saturday, the criminal case opened against Prigozhin for organizing an armed insurrection would be dropped, Wagner troops would not face charges and Prigozhin would leave Russia for Belarus. But what, if any, promises were made on behalf of the Kremlin, Wagner, or Lukashenko remain unclear.

There is only one thing observers say with much certainty: Lukashenko appears to be the biggest winner of Prigozhin’s mutinous campaign.

“Putin lost because he showed how weak his system is, that he can be challenged so easily,” said Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarusian diplomat and analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Prigozhin challenged, he attacked, he was so bold and then he retreated, looking like a loser. Only Lukashenko won points — first in the eyes of Putin, in the eyes of the international community as a mediator or negotiator and as a possible guarantor of the deal.”

Since Moscow helped to violently crush a democratic movement in Belarus in 2020, Lukashenko has increasingly allowed Belarus to become a vassal state of Russia. Reliant on Moscow for political and economic support, Lukashenko allowed Putin to use Belarus as a staging ground for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine that began in February 2022, and more recently, as a storage site for Russian tactical nuclear weapons.

During the brief Wagner rebellion, Lukashenko sought to portray himself as a mediator and successful statesman. Belarusian state media reported that Lukashenko received a phone call from Putin on Friday morning — a subtle detail revealing that the more powerful leader had sought Lukashenko’s help — and then convened meetings with his top political and military brass.

According to Belta, the Belarusian state news agency, Lukashenko, with the knowledge of Putin, spoke by phone to Prigozhin and “negotiations continued throughout the day.”

The conversation between Lukashenko and Prigozhin was “very difficult,” Vadim Gigin, a Belarusian pro-regime analyst, told Solovyov Live, an internet channel that backs the Kremlin. “They immediately blurted out such vulgar things it would make any mother cry,” he said. “The conversation was hard, and as I was told, masculine.”

Once Prigozhin announced that his troops would stand down, Belta reported that Putin “supported and thanked the Belarusian colleague for his work.”

Lukashenko’s apparent mediation of the Wagner deal has given him the opportunity to reclaim some of his rapidly eroding sovereignty, and stem existential Belarusian fears of being swallowed by its larger neighbor, said Dmitri Avosha, the founder of Tribuna, a Belarusian website.

“Lukashenko simply did a favor to Putin in its purest form, and helped himself,” he said.

But even with Lukashenko’s role in the agreement potentially bolstering his international standing, many observers have raised questions about whether Prigozhin will be safe if he does fulfill his side of the bargain and move to Belarus.

Russian special forces have been known to enter Belarusian territory in pursuit of “enemies,” said Slunkin.

“And now,” he added, “they will just do what they want.”

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