Wagner's post-Prigozhin fate in Belarus unclear

After staging a short-lived mutiny in Russia in June, Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner mercenaries were exiled to Belarus. With Prigozhin presumed dead following a plane crash, will they be withdrawn?

Representative image of Wagner mercenaries (Photo: DW)
Representative image of Wagner mercenaries (Photo: DW)


Two days after the plane crash that presumably killed Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, the two men who headed Russia's Wagner Group mercenary outfit, the incident remains shrouded in uncertainty. While the incident remains under investigation and the deaths have not been confirmed, Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, rejected suggestions that the men had been killed on Kremlin orders.

Russian ally Belarus now faces the question of what to do with the Wagner fighters who were exiled there after their mutiny against Russian military leaders in June. Some 4,000 to 5,000 notoriously violent Wagner soldiers are supposed to be deployed to the country as "trainers."

Alexander Friedman, a scholar of Eastern European history at Düsseldorf University, told DW that Prigozhin's private Wagner has come to an end. "Wagner fighters, however, still remain in Africa or in Belarus," he said, "perhaps under the same name, but they will be subordinate to the Russian Defense Ministry."

Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko would like to keep some Wagner fighters and integrate them into his forces, Friedman said. "He has enough money to pay for up to 3,000 fighters," Friedman said, "but Moscow has the final say."

A complete withdrawal of the Wagner troops from Belarus would not be in Russia's interest, Friedman said. This would lead to de-escalation on the border with EU states Poland and Lithuania, where Wagner mercenaries are stationed and perceived as a threat. However, a large part of the Wagner troops will be sent to Russia or Africa, the scholar said.

Aleksander Klaskovsky, an analyst for the independent Belarusian Posirk media project, disagrees. Lukashenko has no interest in keeping Wagner troops in Belarus, he told DW. The mercenaries are now without a leader, he said, meaning the future of this group — once a strong fighting force with political ambitions — is unclear. Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and his counterpart Lukashenko are interested in keeping Wagner as small as possible, Klaskovsky said.

The EU and NATO could seal off the border with Belarus, Klaskovsky added. The fact that Belarus' relations with its European neighbors have deteriorated dramatically is not in Lukashenko's interest, Klaskovsky said. He will therefore try to get Wagner out of his country.

"Nothing good awaits the Wagner troops," Valery Sakhashchyk, a prominent exiled Belarusian commander with ties to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, told DW. Sakhashchyk said he believed that some Wagner mercenaries might remain in Belarus "because Russia has an interest in staging provocations along the EU border and acts of sabotage in Ukraine." He added that funding the fighters would be an important issue.

Banishing Wagner fighters to Belarus was merely a temporary solution for the Russian leadership, Grigory Nizhnikov, a researcher with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told DW. He said it was "neither a tactical nor a strategic goal to keep them in Belarus." Lukashenko is neither able nor willing to lead the fighters with Prigozhin is gone, Nizhnikov said. That is why he predicts Wagner troops will leave the Belarus by the end of the year.

Klaskovsky agrees. "These people have opposed Putin before," he said. "He doesn't trust them." That's why Klaskovsky is certain that the Wagner Group will be disbanded and the soldiers dispersed, with "some returning to civilian life, and others going to Africa."

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Published: 27 Aug 2023, 9:20 AM