Updated at 13:25,25-09-2023

Is There a Future for Russia’s Wagner Mercenary Army in Belarus?

Artyom Shraibman, carnegieendowment.org

Is There a Future for Russia’s Wagner Mercenary Army in Belarus?
Photo: BELTA
If Putin changes his mind about Prigozhin and initiates some sort of revenge, Minsk will not be able to protect the Wagner leader, who knows that full well. Lukashenko in turn cannot believe the promises of Prigozhin, a warlord who has just betrayed his patron, to diligently follow Belarusian rules.

One of the strangest twists in the short-lived Wagner mutiny in Russia was the involvement of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who allegedly brokered the deal between mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Kremlin, and is even willing to host Wagner in Belarus.

The Kremlin, Lukashenko, and Prigozhin supposedly agreed that the latter and his Wagner troops would escape punishment for mutiny and be offered safe haven in Belarus in exchange for stopping their march on Moscow. The Belarusian authorities have assembled a camp capable of accommodating up to 5,000 soldiers at an abandoned military base, but there is no sign of Prigozhin or any of his units there, and Wagner’s prospects of finding a new home in Belarus grow more distant with every passing day. Nor is it clear what exactly the infamous mercenary army would do there.

Lukashenko, often described as Putin’s vassal, was an unexpected intermediary in what was arguably the most dangerous political crisis the Russian president has ever faced. Still, the real extent of Lukashenko’s involvement is far from clear. The official accounts from both Russia and Belarus can hardly be taken at face value, especially since even they differ.

Three days after the failed mutiny, Lukashenko claimed that he had personally talked Putin out of destroying the Wagner columns making their way to Moscow, and that he was also the first person to phone Prigozhin, convincing him to stop his advance by scaring him with the prospect of being crushed.

Lukashenko’s inability to resist the urge to brag about his influence is nothing new. He strives for recognition and relevance—even at the price of displeasing the Kremlin. In his first post-mutiny address, Putin thanked Lukashenko only briefly, while emphasizing that it was the consolidation of the Russian people that had thwarted the mutiny. Later, Russian propaganda mouthpiece Dmitry Kiselyov said that Prigozhin had initially ignored Lukashenko’s calls, and that it was Putin who had sanctioned all of Lukashenko’s actions that day.

It’s certainly hard to believe that Lukashenko has enough clout inside Russia to impose his vision of resolving such a dramatic conflict on both parties. It is more likely that Lukashenko’s involvement only became possible after Putin and Prigozhin had decided they wanted to de-escalate instead of allowing events to descend into a bloodbath on the outskirts of Moscow.

The Belarusian ruler served as a public intermediary capable of helping both sides save face. For Putin, it meant he was not reduced to speaking to Prigozhin directly, while for the Wagner leader, Lukashenko provided the opportunity to negotiate with a head of state, albeit a neighboring one.

Still, however technical, Lukashenko’s involvement was a valuable service for the Kremlin. Lukashenko helped Putin to avoid the dilemma of either physically destroying the mutineers, which would have seen blood spilled on both sides, or allowing Prigozhin to remain in Russia unpunished, which would have been an even greater humiliation for Putin than the failed mutiny itself.

The biggest mystery is what precisely the remnants of Prigozhin’s force could do in Belarus. Several ideas are being discussed, some of which are highly improbable, like the suggestion that Wagner will become Lukashenko’s personal guard. The Belarusian strongman is not lacking in internal troops, anti-riot police units, or other security services better equipped to protect the regime against domestic threats than mercenaries trained for military action.

Lukashenko himself floated the idea of Wagner stormtroopers serving as instructors for the Belarusian army, given their extensive combat experience. But the relatively small Belarusian military does not need thousands or even hundreds of them in that capacity.

Another rumor in Belarus is that Minsk could hire Prigozhin’s mercenaries to work at businesses run by Lukashenko’s associates in some African countries where Wagner also has an extensive presence. The problem here is that the mercenaries are used to high wages, and Minsk cannot afford to employ a large number of them. After all, Lukashenko suggested that Wagner’s leaders would pay him for their housing, not the other way around.

The reality could turn out to be simpler. Prigozhin mentioned that Lukashenko had offered him ways to operate “under a legal jurisdiction,” perhaps suggesting that Wagner might register as a private military company in Belarus once the organization is squeezed out of Russia. That would mean Wagner would be managed from an office in Minsk, paying rent—and presumably tax—to Lukashenko, while the actual troops would be safely dispersed across a number of countries where they are in demand. In this case, the “Wagner camp” in the east of Belarus will simply remain empty.

This would likely be a more palatable option for a control freak like Lukashenko, who differs from Putin in terms of the commitment to the state monopoly on violence. While the Russian president has for many years allowed the existence of semi-private military groups like Wagner, Lukashenko has not allowed any alternative center of armed power to emerge in the country.

The idea of the Belarusian autocrat coexisting alongside an enclave of out-of-control armed mercenaries who have already attempted a mutiny in neighboring Russia is unimaginable. Any deal between him and Prigozhin, under which the Wagner leadership would promise to behave in exchange for security guarantees from Minsk, would require the parties to have at least some trust in each other, and that trust is severely lacking.

If Putin changes his mind about Prigozhin and initiates some sort of revenge, Minsk will not be able to protect the Wagner leader, who knows that full well. Lukashenko in turn cannot believe the promises of Prigozhin, a warlord who has just betrayed his patron, to diligently follow Belarusian rules.

There are therefore three reasonably feasible solutions for Lukashenko. He could try to incorporate some parts of Wagner into the Belarusian security apparatus, though it would be expensive. Or he could try to limit their presence in Belarus to their headquarters, without hosting many actual fighters. Finally, he could allow the Wagner camp to exist, but the troops who choose to go there may find themselves effectively interned.

The hollowness of Belarusian security guarantees, combined with likely intrusive control from Lukashenko’s security forces and dubious employment prospects, could seriously reduce the number of “Wagnerites” willing to move to Belarus or to stay there for a long time.

Prigozhin’s ability to negotiate a better deal for himself in Belarus is also questionable, since he now lacks his traditional leverage of ties to Putin and Kremlin patronage. With this trump card removed from the table, if Prigozhin accepts the Belarusian invitation, Lukashenko might actually get the upper hand over the mercenary warlord.