August 25, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Lukashenko claims Wagner mercenaries will remain in Belarus despite the fiery death of their leader

Institute for the Study of War

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s August 24 remarks about Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death established the Kremlin-approved narrative on the issue, and Russian government officials, Kremlin affiliates, and the Russian information space continued to toe this line on August 25. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov lambasted suggestions and claims that Putin was involved in the death of Prigozhin, calling them “an absolute lie.”[1] Peskov stated that there are no official forensic details on Prigozhin’s death yet and claimed that Putin had not met with Prigozhin in the Kremlin in recent days.[2] Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov mirrored some of Putin’s language about Wagner and Prigozhin by stating that Prigozhin “undoubtedly made a great contribution” to the Russian war effort in Ukraine.[3] The Russian information space largely followed the Kremlin-approved narrative and continues to refrain from linking the Kremlin to the plane crash.[4]

Some prominent voices in the Russian information space notably deviated from Putin’s established narrative, however. Former Putin bodyguard and current Tula Oblast Governor Alexey Dyumin stated that it is possible to “forgive mistakes and even cowardice, [but] never betrayal,” and claimed that Prigozhin and Wagner Group founder Dmitry Utkin were not “traitors.”[5] Dyumin’s statement implies that the Wagner June 24 rebellion was not actually a rebellion. Some Russian sources floated Dyumin as a possible replacement for Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu after the rebellion, and Putin made a public point that Shoigu retains a dominant position.[6] Russian ”Vostok” Battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky stated on August 25 that some groups of sources, excluding imprisoned ardent nationalist Igor Girkin, are trying to use Prigozhin’s death to discredit Russian authorities to sow instability and argued that these claimed discreditation campaigns are a sign of instability within Russia.[7] Khodakovsky called for Girkin‘s release following Prigozhin‘s death on August 23 on the grounds that more (presumably good) people were needed to defend Russia.[8] Girkin’s official Telegram account published a statement from him via his lawyer on August 24, wherein Girkin claims that Prigozhin’s plane crash is indicative of deepening unrest within Russia – mirroring Khodakovsky’s complaint.[9] Girkin also claimed that the ”[19]90s are back,” implying that Putin’s broad effort to restore order to Russia following the chaos and gangsterism following the fall of the Soviet Union has failed — a direct attack on a central tenet of Putin’s claimed legitimacy.[10]

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko issued a statement on Prigozhin’s death on August 25 that likely aimed at balancing his relationship with the Kremlin with maintaining domestic control, but that also directly contradicted his previous statements concerning the deal he brokered between the Kremlin and Prigozhin. ISW incorrectly forecasted yesterday that Lukashenko would refrain from publicly speaking about Prigozhin’s death to avoid exacerbating his tenuous position with the Kremlin.[11] Lukashenko’s likely desire to maintain the appearance of being a sovereign leader appears to have outweighed any such concerns. Lukashenko asserted that Wagner would continue to operate within Belarus according to a system that he and Prigozhin had built in recent months and that 10,000 Wagner personnel will be in the country within a few days.[12] The Wagner contingent in Belarus has been reportedly declining in recent weeks, likely due to the Kremlin’s and Russian Ministry of Defense‘s (MoD) apparently successful effort to weaken Wagner.[13] Lukashenko directly responded to satellite imagery showing that up to a third of the tents at the Wagner camp in Tsel, Asipovichy, Belarus had been dismantled in the previous month and claimed that Wagner and Belarusian officials had only dismantled unnecessary tents not needed for the expected number of Wagner fighters.[14] It is extremely unlikely that 10,000 Wagner fighters will arrive in Belarus, nor are that many Wagner personnel needed as advisors and trainers to help Lukashenko build an unspecified Belarusian ”contract army.”[15] Lukashenko has routinely attempted to portray himself as a sovereign leader despite Russia’s current de-facto occupation of the country, and he likely hopes to prevent his domestic audience from viewing Putin’s almost certain assassination of Prigozhin as the Kremlin’s unilateral cancellation of agreements that he had made with Wagner.[16]

Lukashenko also expanded on his role in the negotiations that led to the agreement that ended Wagner’s June 24 rebellion.  Lukashenko stated that over a series of several calls he warned both Prigozhin and Utkin that pressing the rebellion would result in their deaths, portraying himself again as the one who convinced Prigozhin to end the rebellion.[17] Lukashenko likely hoped to underscore the initial deal and Wagner’s arrival in Belarus as examples of his ability to make high-level security decisions outside of the Kremlin’s dictates. Lukashenko endorsed the Kremlin narrative line that Putin had absolutely nothing to do with Prigozhin’s “accident,” dismissed assertions that a missile brought down the plane, and even claimed that he had warned Prigozhin via Putin about an unspecified assassination attempt.[18] Lukashenko notably tried to absolve himself of any responsibility for failing to protect Prigozhin by claiming that safety guarantees were never a part of the conversations he had with Wagner and the Kremlin.[19] Lukashenko had indicated on June 27, however, that Putin “promised” both Lukashenko and Prigozhin that Prigozhin and the Wagner would enjoy unspecified “security guarantees” in Belarus.[20]

The Financial Times reported on the bleak future of the Wagner Group’s operations in Africa following Prigozhin’s death. The Financial Times (FT) cited people familiar with the matter as saying that Prigozhin’s recent trip to Africa may have aimed to prevent the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) from taking control of Wagner’s operations in Africa.[21] This report is consistent with ISW‘s previous assessment that Prigozhin was likely attempting to counter efforts by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Kremlin to weaken and destroy Wagner following the rebellion.[22] FT reported that a longtime acquaintance of Prigozhin stated that Wagner’s operations in Africa will likely struggle without Prigozhin’s leadership.[23] An FT source close to the Russian MoD stated that it is unlikely the Russian military would be able to fully replicate Wagner’s operations in Africa under Prigozhin if the Russian MoD did take over Wagner.[24]

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations near Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast on August 25 and reportedly advanced as Russian milbloggers expressed concern over a lack of reinforcements and troop rotations in the area. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces achieved unspecified successes in the directions of the Novodanylivka-Novopokropivka (5-13km south of Orikhiv) line and the Mala Tokmachka-Ocheretuvate (9-25km southeast of Orikhiv) line.[25] A prominent Russian milblogger expressed concern about the ability of battle-weary Russian forces to defend against possible future renewed Ukrainian attacks near Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv) amid claims that fighting shifted to southern Robotyne.[26] The milblogger claimed that many of the Russian servicemen fighting near Robotyne have been on the frontline since the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and that these units struggle with a shortage of frontline reinforcements.[27] This claim supports ISW’s assessment that Russian forces fighting in the western Zaporizhia Oblast area have been defending against Ukrainian attacks since the start of the counteroffensive without rotation or significant reinforcement.[28]

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