Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is emerging with more power in the aftermath of the military uprising and march on Moscow as he publicly questions President Vladimir Putin’s version of events.
Lukashenko was credited with negotiating the deal that appeared to have ended Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny. The armed uprising was prompted by a demand that Putin replace some leaders of the Russian military. By acting as the intermediary and offering to host Prigozhin and any Wagner Group soldiers who were unwilling to join the Russian military, Lukashenko provided a face-saving solution that allowed both Prigozhin and Putin to step back from a high-risk confrontation.
But it appears that announcements on June 24 did not finish negotiations and all sides are still manoeuvring for power and position.
Since the mutiny, the Belarusian leader has set the stage for a series of humiliating revelations that raise questions about Putin’s ability to handle the military and political challenges posed by Prigozhin’s rebellion.
After indicating on June 27 that Prigozhin had arrived in Belarus to begin his exile, Lukashenko later revealed that the story had taken a different turn.
At a press conference on July 6 at the Palace of Independence in Minsk, the Belarusian president claimed that Prigozhin had returned to Russia and might even be on his way to Moscow. Two days later, to make the point even more clearly, the Belarusian defence ministry invited foreign journalists to tour an empty camp to show that no Wagner Group soldiers were there.
Eventually the Kremlin confirmed Lukashenko’s version of events. Not only had Prigozhin been in Russia, but he had met with Putin, and significant parts of the deal that ended the mutiny were still being determined.
New developments keep on coming. On July 10, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that the Russian president held a lengthy meeting on June 29 with Prigozhin and more than 30 of his Wagner Group commanders. On July 14 Putin revealed that he had offered Wagner Group soldiers the opportunity to continue to fight together in Ukraine under one of the Wagner Group’s senior commanders. This was a significant concession, considering that on the day of Prigozhin’s rebellion, Putin described those involved in the mutiny as betrayers. According to Putin, Prigozhin refused the offer on the men’s behalf.
Both the fact and the substance of this meeting with Putin suggest that Prigozhin still has some political power. Recent revelations that a Russian general is concerned about the conduct of the war as well as reports of suspensions and sackings among senior officers suspected of sympathising with Prigozhin indicate that Putin may not be able to count on the continued loyalty of his army.
Lukashenko’s public revelations of contradictions in the Kremlin’s narrative have put pressure on senior Russian officials – including Putin himself.
But why is Lukashenko giving western journalists these damaging details? The most likely explanation is that Lukashenko is playing a tactical game. He is seeking to exploit Prigozhin’s rebellion to increase the room for manoeuvre in his relationship with Putin and with Russia.
Lukashenko is an authoritarian leader in his own right, but he depends on Moscow as the ultimate guarantor of his grip on power. And Putin has been quick to take advantage of any weakening of Lukashenko’s position to expand Russia’s influence over Belarus.
In return for Moscow’s support during mass protests against Lukashenko after he declared himself the winner of the August 2020 presidential elections, the Belarusian leader agreed to strengthen the alliance with Russia. This “union” had existed mainly on paper since it was established in 1999, but recently it has been bolstered by a new military doctrine and closer links between the two countries’ defence industries and an increase in joint military exercises.
This means that Russia can draw on Belarusian assets for the war in Ukraine. Belarus has not only provided a platform for launching attacks on Ukraine but also weapons, ammunition and medical facilities.
Now Belarus has begun to accept the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons on its territory. This development allows Moscow to back up its nuclear rhetoric with action, as well as to tighten the connections between Belarus and Russia.
Lukashenko has conducted a balancing act throughout the war, demonstrating support for Russia but avoiding committing his own soldiers to the fight. With society in Belarus strongly opposed to more direct involvement in the war, sending Belarusian soldiers over the border into Ukraine would risk provoking another round of mass protests and once again put Lukashenko’s position in doubt.
But while Moscow has been able to dictate terms to Minsk in recent years, that relationship would look very different if Russia were the country undergoing political instability. A Russian leader who is distracted, and even weakened, by the need to assert his control over challengers and respond to internal criticism will have less time to ensure that Lukashenko stays in line.
Lukashenko has taken advantage of opportunities to improve relations with countries beyond Moscow’s orbit, including those in the west. We have seen this as recently as the autumn of 2022, when the Belarusian foreign minister reportedly met informally with western diplomats at the United Nations for talks, which were believed to be about improving relationships. Details were not revealed.
Lukashenko’s interventions in the Prigozhin mutiny episode show that he does not necessarily operate in lockstep with Moscow. Now that Wagner Group soldiers have finally begun to arrive in Belarus, we should be on the lookout for Lukashenko to make further tactical moves to exploit Putin’s political weaknesses and create the basis for a more independent stance by Minsk.