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The recent failed attempt of the leader of the Wagner Group Evgeniy Prigozhin to challenge the Putin regime through an armed insurrection has taken the whole world by surprise. Although the immediate risk of bloodshed in Russia is now very low, tensions continue to rise in and around Belarus, where Prigozhin and his fighters are supposed to relocate based on the concluded deal to diffuse the crisis.

What is the role of Lukashenka in the Kremlin-Wagner clash and what implications does it have for the stability of his rule in Belarus?

Lukashenka’s agency in the brokered deal

The crisis in Russia erupted on Friday, June 23, when Prigozhin accused Russia’s military of killing his men and swore to retaliate by force. He led his troops into Rostov-on-Don and took control of key military facilities in the Voronezh region, where there was an apparent clash between Wagner units and Russian forces. Prigozhin presented his actions not as a coup but as a “march of justice”.

An attempt of an armed insurrection fizzled out after an intervention by Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who offered a deal in which the mutineers would be spared prosecution as long as Prigozhin went to Minsk and Wagner troops laid down their weapons, followed Prigozhin in his exile in Belarus or joined regular Russian forces. According to the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Lukashenka acted as an initiator of the deal which was later discussed and approved by Putin[1].  Lukashenka’s proposal was widely covered in the Belarusian national media which presented him as a hero who had saved both Russia and Belarus from a potential destabilisation.

The assessments by some analysts that the whole operation has been staged by the Kremlin and can be interpreted as Putin’s strategy to get rid of Prigozhin do not seem likely. First, the tensions between Wagner and the Russian military have been growing over an extended period of time. In addition, Prigozhin’s actions seemed to come as a surprise for Putin himself, and he called them a “stab in the back of Russia’s government”, promising to hold everyone responsible to account. In the conditions of the ongoing war and Russia’s lack of significant progress on the battlefield, staging such a performance would have posed high reputational costs for Putin. Therefore, it is far more likely that Russia was indeed on the verge of domestic conflict and Lukashenka intervened with his proposal to help Putin to ensure that the tensions between Wagner and the Kremlin would not explode into a full-fledged crisis which, in turn, could have a detrimental effect for the stability of Lukashenka’s rule in Belarus.

Wagner’s move to Belarus

In the morning of June 27, the Belarusian Hajun monitoring group reported that Yevgeny Prigozhin arrived in Minsk on his business jet[2]. This piece of news was also confirmed by Lukashenka[3].

There is not enough data yet to say whether PMC Wagner followed Prigozhin in his move to Belarus[4]. But over the last few days, Belarusian propaganda Telegram channels claimed that a group of Wagner representatives has arrived to resolve organizational issues of future deployment of mercenaries. In the morning of June 29, iSANS received information that mercenaries of the PMC Wagner were spotted in the Belarusian town Asipovichy where they were buying computer equipment. The mercenaries themselves got stationed in a camp in Tsel village, 20 kilometers from the town. Another indication of the possible arrival of mercenaries is the reported increase of prices for rented accommodation in Asipovichy.  The main units of the PMC with weapons and military equipment have not yet been seen arriving in Belarus. According to iSANS, this can potentially be expected within the next week when all the organizational issues of their deployment on the ground in Belarus are resolved.

Furthermore, on June 26,  Russian media reported that the construction of a camp for the mercenaries of the PMC Wagner began in the Asipovichy district[5]. Russian pro-military Telegram channels claimed about the construction of three camps - one in Asipovichy district and two “in the western regions of Belarus”[6].

Information about the construction of the camp for the PMC Wagner was also reported by the Telegram channel “Belarus golovnogo mozga” which says that the field camp will be set up in Tsel village in the Asipovichy district, “not far from the local military unit 61732.”[7] The employees of forestry departments of Mahiliou region were reportedly involved in the construction of the field camp.

Lukashenka has made several controversial statements regarding the construction of camps for Wagner in Belarus, and in his recent remarks, he declared that Wagnerites will only get assistance with setting up their tents, not camps, and will be stationed in Belarus at their own expense[8].

Wagner’s goal in Belarus

It is still not entirely clear what the mercenaries will do in Belarus. It is possible to assume that a large-scale military operation by the PMC against Ukraine from the territory of Belarus is not likely based on the ongoing transfer of heavy weaponry from the PMC to the Russian Ministry of Defence.

Incorporation of Wagner into the Belarusian Armed Forces is also not feasible due to the financial strain this would imply for the Belarusian budget.

A more likely goal of the stationing of Wagnerites in Belarus is to provide training to the Belarusian military which also corresponds to Lukashenka’s official statement. This could be more of a short-term goal which leaves room for speculation about what the relocated mercenaries would do after this goal is accomplished. Additional ways of cooperation could include strengthening the links between Wagner and GardServis– a new paramilitary structure Lukashenka began to create in Belarus at the beginning of this year[9]. It is worth noting that Belarus under the Lukashenka regime has a long history of cooperation with Wagner and several Belarusians have been recruited by this paramilitary organisation to serve in its operations, especially in Ukraine[10]. Although Belarus-Wagner relations have not always been smooth, these tensions have hardly affected the personal friendship between Lukashenka and Prighozin which has lasted over twenty years[11]. For instance, when 33 Wagnerites were detained in Belarus during the presidential electoral campaign in July- August 2020, Prighozin did not blame Lukashenka but praised him, saying that the Belarusian President and the KGB had a good understanding of the situation on the ground[12]. In return, Lukashenka also spoke quite warmly about Prighozin during his interview with the Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon on the 6th of August 2020 when they discussed the situation with the detention of several Wagnerites in Belarus[13].

Benefits of the Kremlin-Wagner Clash for Lukashenka

Overall, the situation of the Wagner-Kremlin clash has been quite advantageous for Lukashenka, and he could now try to use it as a leverage to get more support from Putin in return for his assistance in saving him from domestic chaos and bloodshed. However, Lukashenka might be cautious about building a long-term alliance with Wagner to counterbalance the Kremlin’s influence in Belarus.  This can pose a certain danger to the stability of Lukashenka’s rule, especially if the Kremlin decides to get rid of Prighozin and change him with a more loyal candidate in the future. The Belarusian dictator would try to avoid this scenario and therefore, the moving and stationing of Wagnerites as well as all their future activity in Belarus will most likely be conducted under the strict control of Belarusian security forces.

Another possible way in which Lukashenka might try to benefit from Wagner’s relocation to Belarus is to try strengthening his negotiating position vis-à-vis the West and opening new channels of communication with the Western counterparts.  He can also potentially use the presence of Wagner in Belarus as a blackmail, akin to the case of nuclear weapons, to send the message to the West that Russia now has more possibilities to start the offensive of Ukraine from the territory of Belarus.  

To conclude, the situation with Wagner’s presence in Belarus adds a new variable to the equation of Belarus’s role in Russia’s war against Ukraine and poses both challenges and opportunities for the stability of Lukashenka’s rule in Belarus.

 

References

[1] https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/news/2023/06/24/982177-prigozhin-pereedet-v-belorussiyu

[2] https://t.me/Hajun_BY/7024

[3] https://www.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-podtverdil-priezd-glavy-chvk-vagner-prigozhina-v-belarus-574036-2023/

[4] The analysis of Wagner’s presence in Belarus is based on iSANS report “Yevgeny Prigozhin’s PMC Wagner in Belarus: Update”, 30 June 2023.

[5] https://t.me/svobodnieslova/2297

[6] https://t.me/NeoficialniyBeZsonoV/26997

[7] https://t.me/belamova/36731

[8] https://www.kommersant.ru/amp/6069383

[9] https://sceeus.se/en/publications/is-belarus-creating-an-equivalent-of-russias-wagner-group-and-can-it-become-a-serious-threat-for-ukraine/

[10] https://www.dw.com/ru/chto-izvestno-o-belorusah-vojujushhih-v-ukraine-na-storone-rossii/a-62088036;https://reform.by/v-ukraine-pogib-belarus-voevavshij-v-chvk-vagner-smi; https://euroradio.fm/ru/pod-bakhmutom-pogib-paren-iz-belarusi-kotoryy-okazalsya-v-chvk-vagner

[11] https://www.svoboda.org/amp/ya-nazyvayu-ngo-zhenya-istoriya-znakomstva-lukashenko-i-prigozhina/32477806.html

[12] https://www.svoboda.org/amp/ya-nazyvayu-ngo-zhenya-istoriya-znakomstva-lukashenko-i-prigozhina/32477806.html

[13] https://www.svoboda.org/amp/ya-nazyvayu-ngo-zhenya-istoriya-znakomstva-lukashenko-i-prigozhina/32477806.html

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Victoria Leukavets

Research Fellow (SFP)

Research Fellow (SFP), Project leader

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