The recent mutiny by the Wagner group, a private Russian mercenary force led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, has exposed the fragility of Vladimir Putin’s grip on power and the complexity of his relations with his closest ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years, played a key role in defusing the crisis by convincing Prigozhin to halt his march towards Moscow and offering him safe haven in his country.
But what motivated Lukashenko to intervene in the conflict between Wagner and the Kremlin, and what are the implications of his mediation for the region and beyond? How he convinced Putin, all are questions that have a huge curiosity for those who know the current situation.
Lukashenko’s interests in mediation
Lukashenko has several interests in preventing a violent confrontation between Wagner and Putin.
First, he is keen to preserve his own political survival and maintain his close ties with Russia, which provides him with economic subsidies, energy supplies and security guarantees.
Lukashenko has faced unprecedented protests and international pressure since a disputed election in August 2020, which he claimed to have won by a landslide but the opposition and many Western countries denounced as rigged.
He has relied on Putin’s support to crack down on the opposition and resist sanctions imposed by the EU and the US. He has also deepened his integration with Russia by signing a series of agreements on defense, trade, and energy cooperation.
Second, Lukashenko is wary of the potential spillover effects of a violent coup or civil war in Russia, which could destabilize his own country and the entire region.
Belarus shares a long border with Russia and has close cultural, historical, and economic ties with its eastern neighbor. Any turmoil in Russia could trigger a refugee crisis, a humanitarian disaster or a security threat for Belarus.
Third, Lukashenko is interested in exploiting the crisis to boost his own image and influence, both domestically and internationally.
By mediating between Wagner and Putin, Lukashenko has portrayed himself as a peacemaker and a problem-solver, who can prevent bloodshed and preserve stability in the region.
He has also demonstrated his value and loyalty to Putin, who thanked him for his help in resolving the situation. At the same time, he has shown some independence from Moscow by hosting Prigozhin and his troops in Belarus, despite Putin’s earlier vow to punish them as traitors.
Lukashenko may hope that his role in the crisis will earn him some concessions from Putin on economic or political issues, or some recognition from the West as a constructive partner.
The mutiny by Prigozhin and his Wagner group was a sudden and dramatic escalation of his long-running feud with Russia’s military establishment, particularly Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Prigozhin is a wealthy businessman and a close associate of Putin, who has been accused of running various covert operations for the Kremlin in exchange for lucrative contracts.
However, Prigozhin has also clashed with Shoigu and other military commanders over the control of resources, contracts, and influence in those regions. He has also faced international sanctions and legal actions for his alleged involvement in human rights abuses, election meddling, and cyberattacks.
Prigozhin seized control of a southern military headquarters on Friday and directed his Wagner troops toward Moscow. He demanded the resignation of Shoigu and accused him of corruption, incompetence, and treason.
He also claimed to have the support of some segments of the Russian military and security forces who were dissatisfied with Shoigu’s policies. He said he wanted to restore Russia’s greatness and dignity on the world stage.
However, Prigozhin’s rebellion was short-lived. He faced strong resistance from loyalist forces who rushed to defend Moscow. He also faced international condemnation from countries that feared a destabilization of Russia or an escalation of its involvement in foreign conflicts.
Most importantly, he faced pressure from Lukashenko, who managed to contact him on Saturday and persuade him to stop his advance. Lukashenko offered him safe passage to Belarus along with some of his troops. He also brokered a deal with Putin that would spare Prigozhin from prosecution and allow Wagner troops to join the Russian military.
Prigozhin agreed to end his revolt on Saturday evening. He arrived in Belarus on Tuesday along with some of his fighters. He was welcomed by Lukashenko who said he had offered him an abandoned military base to stay at.
While Putin survived the mutiny by Prigozhin, his standing appears significantly weakened by the events.
Putin has tried to downplay the significance of the mutiny and portray it as a minor incident that was quickly resolved. He has also tried to rally the nation around him and praise the unity and strength of the Russian people and the armed forces.
However, Putin faces several challenges in the aftermath of the crisis.
He has to deal with the discontent and divisions within his security establishment, which may have been exposed or exacerbated by Prigozhin’s rebellion.
He has to deal with the threat and influence of Prigozhin and his Wagner group, which may still have some support or sympathy among some segments of Russian society or the military.
He has to deal with the pressure and expectations from Lukashenko, who may seek some rewards or recognition for his mediation role.
Putin has to deal with the war in Ukraine, which may have been affected by the mutiny and its resolution. He may have to rely more on Wagner troops to fight in Ukraine or face more resistance from them if he decides to de-escalate or withdraw.