Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin heads into Belarus exile

 Yevgeny Prigozhin

This video grab taken from handout footage posted May 25, 2023, on the Telegram account of the press service of Concord - a company linked to Russian mercenary Wagner group, shows Yevgeny Prigozhin speaking from Bakhmut.

Photo credit: Courtesy | AFP

What you need to know:

  • As Russia announced preparations to disarm Wagner's mercenaries, Putin's supporters were insisting his rule was not weakened by the revolt widely seen as the biggest threat to Kremlin authority since he came to power.

Belarus prepared to welcome rebel Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin into exile on Tuesday as Russia's President Vladimir Putin sought to shore up his authority by thanking regular troops for averting civil war. 

As Russia announced preparations to disarm Wagner's mercenaries, Putin's supporters were insisting his rule was not weakened by the revolt widely seen as the biggest threat to Kremlin authority since he came to power.

Asked whether Putin's power was diminished by the sight of Wagner's rebel mercenaries seizing a military HQ, advancing on Moscow and shooting down military aircraft along the way, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said political commentators were getting over-emotional: "We don't agree." 

Putin himself attempted to portray the dramatic events at the weekend as a victory for the Russian regular military, which he said had shown restraint in not being drawn into fighting with the Wagner force.

"You de facto stopped civil war," Putin told troops from the defence ministry, National Guard, FSB security service and interior ministry gathered in a Kremlin courtyard to hold a minute's silence for airmen slain by Wagner.

"In the confrontation with rebels, our comrades-in-arms, pilots, were killed. They did not flinch and honourably fulfilled their orders and their military duty," Putin said.

Private army

Prigozhin, a former Kremlin ally and catering contractor who built Russia's most powerful private army, has boasted -- with some support from news footage -- that his men were cheered by civilians during his short-lived revolt.

But Putin insisted that Wagner's ordinary fighters had seen that "the army and the people were not with them."

In a separate meeting with defence officials, Putin confirmed that Wagner was wholly funded by the Russian federal budget, despite operating as an independent company, adding that in the past year alone since the assault on Ukraine Moscow had paid the group 86.262 billion rubles (around $1 billion) for salaries. 

Russian officials have been trying to put the crisis behind them for three days, with Prigozhin due to go into exile in Belarus, the FSB dropping charges against rank-and-file Wagner troopers and the military preparing to disarm the group. 

"Preparations are underway for the transfer of heavy military equipment from the private military company Wagner to units of the Russian armed forces," the defence ministry said.

But, even if the immediate security threat of Prigozhin's feud with the defence ministry is over, the Kremlin faces questions over how it handled the issue and allowed the violence of its operation in Ukraine to spill back into the heart of Russia.

Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, usually seen as a junior partner to Putin, is seeking credit for stepping in to mediate Wagner's U-turn on the road to Moscow and by Tuesday he had criticised Russia's handling of the issue. 

The feud between Wagner and the army had escalated for months, with Prigozhin making increasingly scathing statements against the generals' handling of the offensive in Ukraine, blaming them for thousands of Russian losses. 

"We missed the situation, and then we thought that it would resolve itself, but it did not resolve," Lukashenko said. 

"Two people who fought at the front clashed, there are no heroes in this case," he added, in an apparent reference to the Wagner chief and his rival, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

'We could waste him'

Talking to his own military officials, Putin ally Lukashenko said that Prigozhin was expected in Belarus on Tuesday, and revealed that he had urged Putin not to kill the rogue mercenary.

"I said to Putin: we could waste him, no problem. If not on the first try, then on the second. I told him: don't do this," Lukashenko said, according to state media.

Some in the West have expressed concern that Wagner's revolt could plunge Russia into chaos and endanger the security of its nuclear arsenal. Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the revolt proves that Putin's operation in Ukraine has "also put the security of his own country in danger."

In his address, Putin also stressed that the revolt had not forced Russia to withdraw any of its units from Ukraine, where fighting continued as Kyiv's brigades pursued their counteroffensive in their nation's east and south.

"All military formations continued to wage a heroic fight at the front," Putin noted.

The bloody conflict is now 16 months old, with mass casualties on both sides and a rising civilian toll. 

On Tuesday, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine said it had evidence that Russian troops had summarily executed at least 77 detained civilians. 

"It is a war crime... it's also a gross violation of international human rights law," said Matilda Bogner, head of the mission.