December 2, 2023

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Lukashenko says that Prigozhin is in St. Petersburg, not Belarus: the war is between Ukraine and Russia

Lukashenko says that Prigozhin is in St. Petersburg, not Belarus: the war is between Ukraine and Russia
Belarusian President Alexander G. Lukashenko addresses reporters in the capital, Minsk, on…Nana Hitman for The New York Times

MINSK, Belarus — Belarusian President Alexander G. Lukashenko said Thursday in a rare appearance to reporters that the leader of Russia’s latest armed rebellion was not in Belarus, but remained in Russia.

Mr. Lukashenko said that Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the head of Wagner’s mercenary company, was in St. Petersburg or Moscow, contrary to statements he made days after the mutiny. Lukashenko’s latest claim cannot be verified, and Mr. Prigozhin has not been seen in public since the mutiny nearly two weeks ago.

Mr. Lukashenko said that Mr. Prigozhin “is in St. Petersburg.” He added that the Wagner leader might travel to Moscow, the Russian capital, but said he was “not on Belarusian soil”.

Mr. Lukashenko was speaking in the aftermath of some of the most dramatic political chaos in Russia since President Vladimir Putin came to power more than two decades ago. The Belarusian autocrat intervened in the armed rebellion led by Mr. Prigozhin, and struck a deal with the Wagner leader that made him stand down and withdraw his troops.

The deal called for Mr. Prigozhin to call off his rebellion in exchange for amnesty for his troops, and safe passage to Belarus. In the days after the mutiny, Lukashenko said Mr. Prigozhin was in Belarus, but on Thursday he said the Wagner leader remained in St. Petersburg, where he had business operations.

Mr. Lukashenko said he spoke to Mr. Prigozhin on Wednesday, and that Wagner would continue to “fulfill his duties to Russia for as long as possible.” Mr. Prigozhin, he said, was “a free man, but what will happen later, I don’t know.”

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Mr. Lukashenko also said that Wagner’s forces were not in Belarus and remained in their “permanent camps”. The claim cannot be verified. After the failed insurrection, Wagner’s forces have returned to their camps in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region, an area Russia largely occupied and illegally annexed last fall.

Mr. Lukashenko said earlier that he showed the Wagner fighters an “abandoned” military base. Satellite images verified by The New York Times last week showed new temporary structures being built at the abandoned base 80 miles from Minsk, the capital of Belarus. But on Thursday, Lukashenko appeared to growl at a question about the possible presence of Wagner forces in Belarus.

“Whether they come here, and if so how many of them, we will decide in the future,” he said. “It will depend on the decision that the leadership of Russia and Wagner will make.”

Any of Wagner’s units in Belarus could be called upon to defend the country, Mr. Lukashenko said, suggesting the mercenary company would remain a fighting force even after the failed insurgency. Mr. Lukashenko said that Wagner’s agreement to defend Belarus in the event of war was the main condition for granting permission for the group to move to the country.

“If we have to activate this unit to defend the homeland, it will be activated immediately,” he said. “And their expertise will be in great demand.”

After the mutiny late last month, Mr. Lukashenko has positioned himself as a power broker who has helped avert crisis, even as he becomes increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. Seen in the West as a vassal under the control of the Kremlin, Mr. Lukashenko appears to be trying to burnish his image as a key player in resolving one of the biggest crises of Mr. Putin’s era as Russia’s leader.

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By interviewing a small group of reporters at his presidential palace on Thursday, Mr. Lukashenko may hope to establish a measure of independence from his benefactors in Moscow, with the potential for a boost at home, with the electorate interested in peace. From joining Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Anatoly Kurmanaev And Ivan Nikiporenko Contribute to the preparation of reports.