Prigozhin Is Said to Be in Russia, as Wagner Mystery Deepens

The mercenary leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin is in Russia and is a “free man” despite staging a rebellion against Moscow’s military leadership, the leader of Belarus said on Thursday, deepening the mystery of where Mr. Prigozhin and his Wagner group stand and what will become of them.

President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus told reporters that Mr. Prigozhin was in St. Petersburg, Russia, as of Thursday morning, and then “maybe he went to Moscow, maybe somewhere else, but he is not on the territory of Belarus.”

It was Mr. Lukashenko who brokered a deal between President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Mr. Prigozhin to end the brief mutiny. He said days later that the Wagner leader had gone to Belarus, though it is not clear whether that actually happened.

Mr. Prigozhin is at liberty for now, Mr. Lukashenko said, though he conceded that he “did not know what would happen later,” and he brushed off the idea that Mr. Putin would simply have Mr. Prigozhin, until recently a vital ally, killed.

“If you think that Putin is so malicious and vindictive that he will kill Prigozhin tomorrow — no, this will not happen,” he said.

If Mr. Prigozhin — vilified as a traitor in state media — is, in fact, free and in Russia less than two weeks after staging what the Kremlin called an attempted coup, it would be one of the more perplexing twists in a story full of them. On Wednesday, a prominent current-affairs television show broadcast video of what it claimed was a police search of his opulent mansion in St. Petersburg, where it said large amounts of cash, firearms, passports, wigs and drugs had been found. A spokesman for Mr. Prigozhin denied that the house was his.

Mr. Prigozhin in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, as the Wagner forces began to end the rebellion last month.Credit…Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Some Russian news outlets reported that Mr. Prigozhin was in St. Petersburg on Wednesday or Thursday. A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence, said that the Wagner leader had been in Russia for much of the time since the mutiny, but the official said it was not clear whether he had been in Belarus, in part because Mr. Prigozhin apparently uses body doubles to disguise his movements.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, deflected a question about Mr. Prigozhin’s whereabouts, saying that the government had “neither the ability nor the desire” to track his movements.

In a rare news conference with local and foreign journalists at the marbled presidential palace in Minsk, Mr. Lukashenko, always eager to be seen as an international statesman, clearly enjoyed the limelight cast on him by the most dramatic challenge to Mr. Putin’s authority in his 23 years in power. But days after offering a haven to Wagner fighters and their leader in his country, Mr. Lukashenko gave no clarity about where they would go or what role they would play.

While Mr. Lukashenko, an autocrat who has ruled his country for 29 years, continued to boast of his mediation and peacemaking, he also made clear his deference, even subservience, to Russia and Mr. Putin, whom he referred to multiple times as “big brother.”

“The main question of where Wagner will be deployed and what will it do — it doesn’t depend on me; it depends on the leadership of Russia,” he said. He added that he had spoken to Mr. Prigozhin on Wednesday, and that Wagner would continue to “fulfill its duties to Russia for as long as it can,” though he did not elaborate.

Mr. Putin has long sought to to pull Belarus deeper into the Russian political, economic and military orbits. For years, Mr. Lukashenko, whose power depends heavily on managing that relationship, did well enough to maintain some independence and even tried to build trade ties to the West.

But that faded after Mr. Putin helped him brutally suppress opposition protests in 2020, starting a period of increased repression in which critics of the government were jailed or fled into exile. Under Western sanctions and increasingly treated as an international pariah, Belarus — with nine million people — has became ever more reliant on Russia, — with a population of 143 million — for economic aid, energy, high-tech imports and diplomatic support.

Riot police officers during a protest in Minsk following the 2020 presidential elections.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

In February, when Mr. Putin thanked him for traveling to Moscow for a meeting, Mr. Lukashenko, in a remark caught by television cameras, replied: “As if I could not agree.”

A year earlier, Mr. Lukashenko had allowed Mr. Putin to launch one thrust of his invasion of Ukraine from Belarusian soil, and this year, he allowed Russia to station nuclear-armed short-range missiles there. But he has so far resisted efforts to pull Belarus’s military directly into the war.

During the Wagner uprising, Mr. Lukashenko played go-between, speaking with Mr. Prigozhin and Mr. Putin. He later boasted that he had made peace between them, persuading the Wagner leader to stand down and the Russian president “not to do anything rash,” like having Mr. Prigozhin killed or the mutiny crushed in bloody fashion. His claims could not be verified.

Wagner’s mercenaries have made up some of the most brutal and effective units fighting in Ukraine for Russia, and took the lead in capturing the city of Bakhmut after a long and very brutal battle. But Mr. Putin and his government have opted to end Wagner’s independence, requiring its fighters in Ukraine to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense — a main cause of Mr. Prigozhin’s mutiny.

Mr. Lukashenko said last week that he had offered Wagner fighters an “abandoned” military base in Belarus, and satellite images verified by The New York Times showed temporary structures being built at a deserted base about 80 miles from Minsk.

But on Thursday, he said that members of Mr. Prigozhin’s mercenary force remained in their “permanent camps,” believed to be in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine.

“Whether they will come here, and if so, how many of them will come, we will decide in the future,” he said.

Members of the Wagner mercenary group in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, during their rebellion last month.Credit…Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Mr. Lukashenko said that any Wagner units in Belarus could be called upon to defend the country, and that the group’s agreement to fight for Belarus in the event of a war was the main condition for granting it permission to relocate to the country.

“Their experience will be in high demand,” he said.

Mr. Lukashenko also praised the group and signaled that at least some of Wagner’s fighting force could stay intact.

He has positioned himself as a power broker who had helped resolve a crisis, and not for the first time. Early in his news conference on Thursday in an ornate, high-ceiling meeting room, he reminded the dozen or so journalists present that it was in the same room that he had played host to the leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine for peace talks in 2015.

In 2014, Russia had seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, and proxy forces backed by Moscow started a separatist war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region — which Russia now claims as its own. An agreement reached in 2015 in Minsk laid out steps — largely ignored in the following years — that were supposed to produce a lasting peace, and the fighting in Donbas, while diminished, did not stop.

In the first weeks of the full-scale invasion last year, Mr. Lukashenko invited delegations from Kyiv and Moscow to Belarus but they found no common ground for continued talks, much less peace.

By speaking with a small group of reporters at the Independence Palace on Thursday, Mr. Lukashenko may be hoping to establish a measure of independence from his benefactors in Moscow, and credibility with the West, while possibly getting a boost at home, with a populace more interested in peace than joining Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine.

It also presented a patina of normalcy in a country where independent journalism is effectively criminalized. Accreditation for Western journalists is unusual and can often be obtained only when Mr. Lukashenko deems it in his interest to speak to them.

Their presence — and their interest in Mr. Lukashenko’s role in the negotiations between Mr. Putin and Mr. Prigozhin — was the subject of national news in Belarus, where the state-controlled media regularly tout the president’s international stature.

Photographs showing President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Mr. Lukashenko at the Independence Palace in Minsk on Thursday during the news conference.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

Despite the formality of the scene, where white-gloved attendants poured tea, Mr. Lukashenko, who had a seating chart with all the journalists present, behaved mostly informally, addressing many reporters by name and cracking jokes.

Those from Belarus state media posed friendly questions, asking how Belarusian society should prepare to withstand information campaigns organized by the U.S. Department of State or prompting him to speak about the government’s efforts to bring children from Russian-occupied Ukraine to summer camps in Belarus — which Ukrainian prosecutors are investigating as a possible war crime.

Mr. Lukashenko mostly dodged far tougher questions from foreign journalists, like whether he regretted allowing Russia to invade from Belarus. Instead, he placed the blame for the invasion on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

He also ridiculed journalists who asked about domestic repression, particularly in recent years. Viasna, a human rights organization whose Nobel Peace Prize-winning founder, Ales Bialatski, is behind bars in Belarus, has counted almost 1,500 political prisoners.

Before the 2020 election, Mr. Lukashenko’s government imprisoned potential candidates to run against him or barred them from appearing on the ballot. After the government claimed that Mr. Lukashenko had won 81 percent of the vote, opponents cried fraud, and mass protests began.

Belarusian news outlets that covered the demonstrations have been criminalized as “extremist” and just following them or sharing their materials on social media can result in prison time.

Despite its small population, Belarus ranks fifth in the world in the number of jailed journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The Association of Belarusian Journalists, itself banned as an “extremist” organization, counts 33 journalists being held.

When asked on Thursday why a leading jailed opposition figure, Sergei Tikhanovsky, had not been heard from in months or allowed access to his lawyer, the Belarusian leader seemed to stumble on his surname, as if it were unfamiliar to him.

A memorial in Minsk to those killed in World War II. By speaking with reporters, Mr. Lukashenko may be hoping to get a boost at home, with a populace more interested in peace than joining Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

Anatoly Kurmanaev contributed reporting from Berlin, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

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