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The Unlikely Winner of Wagner’s Failed Mutiny in Russia

6 minute read

When Russian President Vladimir Putin faced the greatest threat to his authority in decades over the weekend, one man sprung to his rescue: Alexander Lukashenko. The longtime Belarusian dictator has been credited by Moscow with striking the backroom deal that ultimately prompted Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin to call off his troops’ mutinous march on Moscow—a clash that observers feared could culminate in an all-out civil war, pitting Prigozhin’s band of mercenaries against Russia’s military leadership, and Putin himself. In a statement on June 24, representatives for Lukashenko said he had informed Russia about his negotiations with Wagner leaders, and Putin had “supported and thanked his Belarusian counterpart for the work done.”

While the details of the agreement are sparse, the Kremlin says Prigozhin agreed to leave Russia for Belarus—and withdraw his estimated cohort of 25,000 fighters—in exchange for their immunity and for the criminal case opened by Russia’s security services against Prigozhin for organizing an armed insurrection to be dropped. (Prigozhin has yet to publicly comment on the agreement and was last seen departing Rostov-on-Don in an SUV as supporters cheered. It is also unclear if Moscow will keep its end of the reported bargain, as there have been reports in the Russian press that Prigozhin remains under criminal investigation.)

On Monday, Prigozhin posted an 11-minute audio message via Telegram for the first time since the aborted march June 24. He said that the mutiny was not aimed at overthrowing Russia’s leadership, according to the BBC. Instead, he claims that the rebellion was “categorically against the decision to close Wagner on 1 July 2023 and to incorporate it into the defense ministry.”

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Regardless of what happens, Lukashenko is the only one who appears to have emerged stronger from this crisis. Such an outcome might have been unthinkable only a few years ago. In 2020, Lukashenko was on the brink of losing power himself, when, in the aftermath of another rigged election, Belarusians took to the streets in what would become the largest pro-democracy protests in the country’s history. That Lukashenko ultimately managed to stave off the calls for his ouster was in large part thanks to Putin, who provided his Belarusian counterpart with Russian police forces to help quash the demonstrations and a $1.5 billion loan to overcome Western sanctions.

That investment has since paid off. When Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Belarus—which shares a 674-mile border with Ukraine—became a convenient springboard from which Moscow positioned tens of thousands of troops and military hardware. Lukashenko has remained a loyal footsoldier to Putin, allowing Belarus to become an effective vassal state of Russia in exchange for economic and political stability. In addition to substantial loans, Minsk also relies on Moscow for billions of dollars in oil and gas subsidies.

By reportedly intervening in Prigozhin’s attempted mutiny, Lukashenko may have been seeking to protect not only his Kremlin benefactors, but also himself. “Lukashenko’s regime would crumble immediately if Prigozhin succeeded, so Lukashenko definitely had motivation to stop it,” Franak Viačorka, the chief political advisor to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, tells TIME. But that necessity quickly turned into opportunity, with Lukashenko capitalizing on the deal as evidence of his own statesmanship. Belarusian media outlets have heaped praise on his efforts, with some even going so far as to dub Lukashenko “the peacemaker of Slavic civilization” and the “Hero of Russia.” It’s a narrative that Moscow has proven happy to support. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov credited Lukashenko’s decades-long relationship with Prigozhin in helping get the deal over the line, adding that Moscow is “grateful to the President of Belarus for these efforts.”

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Lukashenko “is interested to say very publicly and loudly that he was the mastermind,” says Ryhor Astapenia, the director of the Belarus Initiative at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “He used this window of opportunity to restore a lot of his agency that he lost after 2020.”

Still, Viačorka says Lukashenko’s role in diffusing the crisis shouldn’t be overstated. As he and many other observers see it, Putin merely used Lukashenko as a messenger to avoid speaking with Prigozhin directly, whom the Russian president had accused of committing high treason. “For Putin, it was a way to stop Prigozhin; for Prigozhin, it was a way to save face,” Viačorka adds. “It is not a long-term solution, but it just gives them both a break to regroup.”

What ultimately comes of the agreement—and whether Prigozhin and Putin choose to uphold their sides of it—could have significant consequences for Lukashenko. Viačorka says that, at the end of the day, all three men concerned are mutually dependent on one another: Putin on Prigozhin for fighting in Ukraine; Prigozhin on Lukashenko for providing him safe haven; and Lukashenko on Putin for his own political survival. (Lukashenko’s dependence on Putin suits the Russian President, who can scarcely afford another pro-democracy uprising on his doorstep.) “On the one hand, they hate each other,” says Viačorka, “but on the other hand, they need each other.”

As such, whatever benefits Lukashenko may have reaped from this crisis may ultimately be short-lived. The last few days have severely undermined Putin’s image of strength and authority. That the Russian leader ostensibly chose to let Prigozhin go—despite having done far worse to critics who have done far less—has led some analysts to believe that perhaps the Kremlin had genuine concerns about a wider military mutiny. If the Russian president is seen to be on the verge of losing power, or susceptible to ouster by an armed rebellion, that can’t bode well for Lukashenko. If Putin goes, he’s unlikely to be far behind.

—With reporting by Armani Syed

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Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com