Theodoros Benakis

Prigozhin in Belarus: A deadly threat for Ukraine and the Minsk regime

In a speech Lukashenko delivered on June 26, he tried to show that he had a decisive role in stopping an embryonic civil war and calming down a panicked Vladimir Putin.

The failed mutiny of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner mercenary group, the role allegedly played by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and the decision to transfer the mercenary chief to Belarus complicated local and regional situations furthermore.

No doubt, Belarus entered a new period.

The EU and the Western world realise the threats the subjugation of Belarus to Russia implies – recently, Belarus accepted Russian nuclear weapons to be dispatched and installed in its territory. Consequently, the European Commission launched a new Consultative Group between the European Union and Belarusian democratic forces and civil society.

Belarus might be closer to liberation from the Lukashenko regime. However, before that, more deadly events can happen.

In addition, during his speech to cadres of his regime on June 26, Lukashenko made some significant revelations concerning Putin, and himself.

What Lukashenko told us

In a speech Lukashenko delivered on Monday, he tried to show that he had a decisive role in stopping an embryonic civil war and calming down a panicked Vladimir Putin.

The speech targeted both the national audience and the Russian regime.

“I advised Putin not to rush things,” he said.

“Let’s talk to Prigozhin and his commanders. And what did he say? ‘ It’s useless. He doesn’t even answer his phone. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone,” he continued.

He also explained how hard finding Prigozhin’s phone was, although Putin told him that the Wagner leader didn’t reply to previous phone calls.

What does all this mean? That Putin was in a deep depression – as evidence indicates – fearing that he had lost control of the situation. In his speech, Lukashenko presented a chaotic situation – which it seems is the truth.

He also said if he didn’t succeed in preventing the civil war, then Putin and the Minsk regime would collapse.

Making efforts to show the local audience that he is still a significant political figure with international importance, Lukashenko shows that the Russian regime is close to collapsing and that his regime is alive only because of the Kremlin.

Moreover, his speech revealed the critical role of the Russian security services during the negotiation and deal with Prigozhin. Lukashenko only had to accept the conditions and pretend he had a first class role.

Is the presence of Wanger in Belarus a risk? 

At the end of July 2020, just a week before the presidential elections of August, 33 Wagner mercenaries were arrested by Belarus police on the accusation of plotting against the regime of Lukashenko.

We should consider that although Belarus was a loyal vassal of Moscow, dependent on subsidized Russian energy, Minsk attempted to take some distance from Moscow after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. As the EU pressed Lukashenko to make further reforms concerning the rule of law, free elections, and democratic rights, he turned again to the Kremlin.

Terror, corruption, violence, and disinformation marked the 2020 presidential elections. The regime prohibited three candidates from participating – several political opponents were arrested or molested.

Two of these three candidates are now in prison. Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested after he announced his candidature in May 2020. Viktar Babaryka and his son were arrested in July 2020. Valery Tsepkalo escaped with his family, first to Moscow, then to Kyiv.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya ran as the main rival to Lukashenko in the contested election. The results gave him a Soviet type majority of 81,04%. Mass protests broke out in Minsk. The regime responded with brutality. Pro-democracy demonstrations lasted until 2021. Thousands of democratic citizens were forced to emigrate or be arrested. The 29-year-old Konstantin Shishmakov, director of the Volkovysk Military History Museum, who refused to sign the protocol of the election commission, was murdered by the regime. Responding to such violence, the EU issued sanctions against the Lukashenko regime.

Thus, there was much speculation about why a group of more than 200 Wagner mercenaries – according to the state Belta news agency – were in Minsk those days. Considering what Putin said in one of his speeches after the Saturday, 24 June, events, the Russian state financed and equipped the mercenary group. Only during May 2022 and May 2023, the mercenaries received 1 bn dollars from the state!

Although the issue remains obscure, we cannot exclude the possibility the mercenaries prepared a coup in case Lukashenko failed to block the democratic forces.

Whatever the case was, the presence of Wagner forces in Belarusian territory represents a multi-level risk: for Belarus, Ukraine, neighbouring countries, and the regime itself.

In addition, the decision to send Prigozhin to Belarus wasn’t of Lukashenko. He only succumbed to orders.

Wagner will spread fear across Belarus, prepare attacks on Ukrainian territory, and possibly threaten the EU members bordering the country.

“The presence of the war criminal Prigozhin in #Belarus poses a threat to the security of our people, our independence & our neighbors. It is against both the will of Belarusians & the interests of our nation,” tweeted Tsihanouskaya on June 29.

The EU supports a democratic Belarus 

The fact that Putin decided to move and install nuclear weapons in its territory and the presence of the Wagner group requests a tough and decisive stance from the EU and from the West.

Since August 2020, the EU has committed more than €100 million in support of the Belarusian people, including human rights organisations, civil society, independent media, cultural institutions, and small and medium-sized enterprises. The EU will activate a €3 billion comprehensive plan in support of a democratic Belarus, once Belarus embarks on a path to democratic transition.

Tsihanouskaya met European Council President Charles Michel on June 28, and they discussed the EU response to the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons, Prigozhin’s “relocation” to Belarus, and its consequences to regional security.

The decision to launch a new Consultative Group between the European Union and Belarusian democratic forces and civil society, in the presence of the leader of the opposition and Head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other prominent figures of the Belarusian opposition and civil society, is a critical step in EU’s policy towards Belarus.

The Consultative Group will ensure information sharing on the situation in the country and assist further EU actions in support of a free, sovereign, and democratic Belarus.

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