Prigozhin said he wanted to speak to Putin, Lukashenko said, and demanded that frequent targets of his ire — Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff — be handed over to him. That wasn’t going to happen, Lukashenko said.
Putin gives speech on deal with mercenaries; Russia confronts divisions
Lukashenko, perhaps improbably, played a central role in brokering the deal between Putin and Prigozhin that led to the enraged mercenary boss diverting a column of fighters that were advancing on Moscow with surprisingly little resistance. Putin, in exchange, agreed to drop insurgency charges against Prigozhin and to allow him and Wagner to move to neighboring Belarus, all but a client state of Moscow.
Putin also allowed Prigozhin to leave Russia alive — a point that seemed uncertain until Lukashenko on Tuesday confirmed that the mercenary chief had arrived by private plane in Belarus.
Lukashenko’s version of events could not be verified. He is widely viewed as a dictator and an abuser of civil, human and political rights. The president of Belarus since 1994 claimed reelection most recently in a 2020 vote widely viewed as fraudulent, igniting months of protests that were brutally repressed. And he’s known for making aggrandizing, far-fetched and at times bizarre statements.
In September 2020, for instance, Lukashenko claimed that reports of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny being poisoned were falsified. He released a transcript of what he said was a conversation between a Polish intelligence officer named “Mike” and a German agent named “Nick” intercepted by Belarus that confirmed the fraud. Angela Merkel, then German chancellor, announced the findings of a German military laboratory that Navalny was poisoned with chemical weapon personally.
But however checkered Lukashenko’s reputation, the Kremlin confirmed that he was a central figure in the deal. And in his remarks on Tuesday, Lukashenko described conversations with Putin and Prigozhin in unusually granular terms.
Belarusian dictator Lukashenko’s unlikely cameo as mediator with Wagner
While speaking with Putin on Saturday morning, Lukashenko said, he concluded that the Russian president planned to “whack” Prigozhin. He said he convinced Putin that while that option was theoretically available, it risked causing major bloodshed.
“I say, ‘Don’t do this, because then there will be no negotiations,’” Lukashenko said.
Wagner fighters, the Belarusian president said Tuesday, are battle-hardened and “will do anything — these guys know how to stand up for each other.”
“And this is the most trained unit in the army,” he said. “Who will argue with this?” If Putin had taken harsh action against Prigozhin, he said, thousands of civilians and Russian forces would die in the conflict.
Lukashenko’s detailed account of sensitive conversations at the heart of the greatest crisis of Putin’s career was highly unusual. He conveyed the sense of a warm relationship with Putin, who he said addressed him as “Sasha,” a diminutive of Alexander.
At the same time, he offered a complimentary assessment of Prigozhin at a moment when senior Russian officials are trying to sully his reputation.
“Who is Prigozhin?” Lukashenko asked, and answered: “He is a very authoritative person today in the armed forces. No matter how much some would not like it.”
Lukashenko said he had received alarming reports about Prigozhin’s mutiny when he was informed through links between the Belarusian KGB and Russia’s Federal Security Service that Putin wanted to speak. When they talked shortly after 10 a.m., he said, he realized Putin was planning tough action and urged him to wait until Lukashenko had spoken to Wagner.
“The most dangerous thing, as I understood it, was not what the situation was, but how it could develop and its consequences,” Lukashenko said.
“I suggested that Putin take his time,” he said, but the Russian president responded: “Listen, Sasha, there’s no point. He doesn’t even pick up the phone. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone.”
In Lukashenko’s telling, he succeeded in persuading Putin to wait until he reached Prigozhin in Rostov-on-Don, the city in southern Russia where Wagner fighters had seized control of an important military headquarters and airfield.
“A bad peace is better than any war,” Lukashenko said he told Putin. “Do not rush. I will try to contact him.”
“He once again says, ‘It’s useless.’ I say, ‘Okay, wait.’”
Putin also discussed the war in Ukraine, Lukashenko said, claiming that it was proceeding “better than before.”
“I say, ‘You see, not everything is so sad,’” Lukashenko said.
Lukashenko and Prigozhin spoke at 11 a.m., Lukashenko said.
Wagner’s commanders, who had just come from the front in Ukraine, were upset that so many fighters had been killed in the war, Lukashenko said. Prigozhin said some in Russia’s military wanted to “strangle” Wagner. Prigozhin has publicly accused Shoigu of trying to destroy the mercenary group.
“The guys are very offended, especially the commanders. And, as I understand it, they greatly influenced … Prigozhin himself,” Lukashenko said. “Yes, he is such, you know, a heroic guy, but he was pressured and influenced by those who led the assault squads and saw these deaths.”
He said Prigozhin denied that Wagner had killed any Russian service members on the way to Rostov-on-Don — contradicting claims Prigozhin made earlier Saturday on camera to Yunus-bek Yevkurov, when he said Wagner shot down three Russian military helicopters because they had fired at the mercenaries.
Lukashenko said he believed Prigozhin’s assertion that Wagner had not yet killed any Russian service members or civilians. He asked what he wanted.
“Let them give me Shoigu and Gerasimov. And I need to meet Putin,’” Lukashenko said Prigozhin told him.
“I say, ‘Zhenya [the diminutive for Yevgeniy], no one will give you either Shoigu or Gerasimov, especially in this situation,’” he said. “You know Putin as well as I do. Secondly, he will not only not meet with you. He will not talk to you on the phone due to this situation.”
Prigozhin was silent at first, Lukashenko said, but then burst out: “But we want justice! They want to strangle us! We’ll go to Moscow!”
“I say, ‘Halfway there you’ll just be crushed like a bug.’”
“‘Think about it, I say.”
“No,” Prigozhin responded.
“I spent a long time persuading him,” Lukashenko said. He told Prigozhin that he could do whatever he wanted but Moscow would be defended, he said.
When Prigozhin complained about how hard his men had fought, Lukashenko said he soothed him: “I know.”
The conflict, Lukashenko said, was caused by unhealthy competition between Wagner and the military. “An interpersonal conflict between famous people escalated into this fight.”