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Lukashenko Grows At Putin's Expense, Again
Wagner 'mutiny' ends in Minsk
Mercenary prince Yevgeny Prigozhin has resettled in Belarus. His shocking thunder run to Moscow ended abruptly yesterday after strongman Alexander Lukashenko brokered an agreement between Prigozhin and Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is supposed to give up control of Wagner while Putin removes the generals responsible for mucking up the Russian military. Whether this all works out as agreed, or not, Lukashenko has gained the most in the bargain.
Prigozhin has elevated his political image. A few Russian aircraft shot down trying to interdict his column notwithstanding, his blood-free coup de main stopped short of a brutal coup d’état which would taint his future. Putin was visibly powerless to stop Wagner with force, implicitly embarrassing generals Shoigu and Gerasimov. Their war on Wagner is over, charges against Prigozhin are dropped, and yet they are the ones stuck with the war in Ukraine, now. Prigozhin is done with Ukraine.
Naturally, Wagnerites will resume international operations — Central African Republic, Venezuela, Sudan, Syria — but from a pop-up presence in Minsk rather than Moscow. Belarus now stands to gain from contacts with the same countries where Wagner did business. Many Wagner fighters will be unhappy as unwilling employees of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and might be happier in Belarus. For that matter, Wagner has operated in the country for years already. Prigozhin likely already has the means to create a new mercenary start-up on the model of the old one, with Belarus as the beneficiary state.
In the short term, however, the big winner is Lukashenko. “The Belarusian Presidential Press Service announced that Putin informed Lukashenko about the unfolding situation in southern Russia the morning of June 24, suggesting Putin approached Lukashenko to resolve the armed rebellion, though the Belarusian government often spins interactions with the Kremlin to its advantage and this framing is unconfirmed,” reports the Institute for the Study of War. This is indeed the case, for whereas Lukashenko runs a smaller, weaker country than Russia, he is always gaining at Putin’s expense.
ISW assesses that the Belarus dictator had some sort of leverage over Prigozhin — perhaps a threat to shut down existing Wagner operations in Minsk? — and that “Lukashenko will likely seek to use the de-escalation of the armed rebellion to advance his goals, such as delaying the formalization of the Russia-Belarus Union State or preventing Putin from using Belarusian forces in Ukraine.”
Worse for Russian prospects on the battlefield, “Prigozhin’s rebellion and the resolution of the events of June 23 and 24 — though not necessarily the Prigozhin/Kremlin struggle writ large — will likely substantially damage Putin’s government and the Russian war effort in Ukraine.”
To be clear, Alexander Lukashenko is not preferable to Vladimir Putin, merely a different person. They are the same kind of autocrat, except that Lukashenko has proven to be cannier than Putin, able to manipulate the Russian leader and get more out of Russia than he gives in return. If anything, Putin seems to have learned his ruling style from watching Lukashenko, not the other way around.
“Lukashenko has never considered himself second fiddle to Putin,” writer Vijai Meheshwari explained from Ukraine in 2017. Rather than copy his rival, Lukashenko “plays the role of the Joker to Putin’s wily Batman.”
Lukashenko’s grand goal when agreeing to a supranational union of Russia and Belarus with President Boris Yeltsin in 1999 was to rule over the federal entity under a rotating presidency. He envisaged being a Soviet-style leader of the Commonwealth, thus greatly expanding his powers and international stature. Putin, however, poured cold water on the Belarusian’s dreams of imperial glory, famously remarking that Belarus was the “fly” to Russia’s “meatball,” and thus had no rights to equality in their grand union.
Per ISW, Lukashenko is “delaying the formalization of the Russia-Belarus Union State” in hopes of outlasting Putin. He would like to implement, and presumably lead, the proposed Union State after Putin, who has no real successor on standby. This goal might be more achievable for Lukashenko with a Russian mercenary prince to help. Western analysts today assess that Prigozhin did not get enough defections from the regular Russian military, and took the deal on offer out of fear. But what if he made his decision out of cunning calculation?
Inasmuch as Lukashenko cultivates the image of a country bumpkin, the 68-year-old former Soviet collective farm boss did not get where he is through stupidity. Even though he was the only Belarusian deputy to vote against dissolving the Soviet Union in 1991, he has been a canny operator in the post-Soviet world, harboring his own ambitions as well as a dislike of Putin. Dependence on cheap Russian energy was not enough to stop Lukashenko from asserting his independence from Moscow before February 2022. Belarus may be a “vassal state” of Russia, but this relationship has consistently served Lukashenko more than Putin. Belarus has taken steps to improve cooperation but remains a net drain on Russian military resources.
Recent agreements to transfer Russian tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus are a case in point. Lukashenko tells his country that he “demanded” them from Putin to counter western aggression. This “gift” to Belarus was created over decades through expensive Soviet, then Russian, state research and development; it required the retrofit of Belarusian aircraft at Russian expense; it satisfies Putin’s desire to seem strong to the west and Lukashenko’s desire to seem strong in Moscow.
What has Belarus given in return? The Belarusian Army remains uncommitted to battle. It would likely not perform well under fire. Its best use on behalf of Russia is to just sit there, existing, where Ukraine must position forces to guard against a possible invasion. Belarus has helped Russia obtain foreign components, produced some electronic warfare equipment, and provided some training for Russian troops, but nothing on the order of even one small thermonuclear warhead.
One data point that stuck out to me yesterday was the strange video of Prigozhin speaking with Vladimir Stepanovich Alekseev, deputy chief of Russia's military intelligence service, the GRU, yesterday in Rostov-on-Don, along with a deputy minister of defense. At first, I thought this might be a sign that GRU was facilitating Wagner’s success. One day later, I think this was a sort of exit interview that Prigozhin held for public consumption. Alekseev is allegedly the GRU officer who ran the operation to poison Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. Putin only trusts a tiny number of people and Alekseev has earned a measure of that trust.
“From the first day of the [Wagner] organization, I have been carrying out combat missions with you.” Alekseev said in a video he published to Telegram after this. Citing his “great respect” for the organization and its fighters, he nevertheless called Prigozhin’s movement “insanity” and “a stab in the back of the country in the president.”
Specifically, he accused Prigozhin of “trying to encroach” on Putin’s power to appoint his own generals over the regular Russian forces. His foremost concerns were for image, however. “Imagine how enthusiastically the west will perceive what you are now trying to do … I beg you, think again, there is no need to do this now, because it is now impossible to think of a greater blow to the image of Russia, to its armed forces.” True, and also Prigozhin has gotten away with it, escaping to Minsk, from where he may yet return in force one day. Putin, already diminished, has nowhere to go.
ISW notes how many Wagner-associated organizations distanced themselves from Prigozhin, assessing that his influence has declined as a result. This may be true in the short term. Wagnerites may feel left out of his private agreement with Lukashenko right now. Nevertheless, these things can be forgotten with the turning of a political tide, while surviving veterans of Ukraine are likely to regard the Wagner mutiny as a demonstration of the leadership they were lacking in the war.
“The victor of Bakhmut” has successfully distanced himself from an imminent military catastrophe. Putin could not muster the forces to stop Prigozhin and he has been embarrassed. Next, Russian defeats on the battlefield will further enlarge the political possibilities for Prigozhin and Lukashenko in Russia. Observers worry that either of them could potentially be worse than Putin because they are smarter and more ruthless. Imagine what they might accomplish together if they try.
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