July 6, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Prigozhin skips exile in Belarus, heads for Russia

Institute for the Study of War

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stated that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner forces are not in Belarus as of July 6, indicating that Prigozhin may be failing to uphold the deal Lukashenko mediated between Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin following Wagner’s armed rebellion on June 24. Lukashenko and the Kremlin previously announced that Prigozhin, Putin, and Lukashenko reached an agreement that offered Prigozhin and the Wagner forces that participated in the rebellion unspecified security guarantees in Belarus. The full contents of this agreement have not been revealed, but it appears that Wagner is not fulfilling its end of the deal. Lukashenko stated on July 6 that Wagner forces are currently at their permanent camps (either in Russia or in Ukraine) to which they withdrew following the Battle for Bakhmut. Lukashenko added that Prigozhin is in St. Petersburg or may have even flown to Moscow on the morning of July 6. Lukashenko denied the reports that Belarus is constructing new training camps for Wagner forces and noted that Belarus offered Wagner several former Soviet military camps including some near Asipovichy, Mogilev Oblast. Lukashenko implied that Wagner had not yet agreed to deploy to these bases and that Wagner “has a different vision for [their] deployment,” the details of which Lukashenko refused to share. Lukashenko, however, denied that the deal has been terminated and noted that the question of Wagner forces’ transfer and setup “has not been decided” at the moment.

Russian sources also indicated that Prigozhin is in Russia, although ISW cannot confirm Prigozhin’s whereabouts at this time. A Russian opposition outlet reported that Prigozhin’s plane landed in Rostov Oblast after flying from Moscow Oblast on the morning of July 6. A St. Petersburg outlet reported on July 5 that Prigozhin personally picked up several small arms seized by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) from the FSB building in St. Petersburg on July 4. The outlet also reported that Prigozhin was in Moscow over the weekend on July 1 and July 2. ISW had not observed any visual confirmations in the open source that Wagner personnel deployed to Belarus at this time. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov also claimed that the Kremlin does not follow Prigozhin’s movements, noting that the Kremlin cannot and does not want to follow Prigozhin. Peskov’s statement is absurd given that the Kremlin and Russian security forces have the ability to detain Prigozhin or restrict his movements in Russia. It is particularly absurd if Prigozhin was actually able to collect his weapons from an FSB facility.

Ukrainian and Russian officials largely de-escalated their rhetoric regarding the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on July 6. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov stated on July 6 that the danger of a man-made disaster at the ZNPP is “gradually decreasing,” following warnings by various Ukrainian officials on July 4 that Russian forces may have placed objects resembling explosive devices on the roofs of two of the ZNPP’s reactor buildings. First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Presidential Administration Sergey Kiriyenko and Zaporizhia Oblast occupation head Yevgeny Balitsky also notably visited the ZNPP on July 6 and posted images reportedly near the plant’s dry nuclear waste storage facility. Kiriyenko and Balitsky noted that the plant continues to “operate normally” under Russian control, thus downplaying previous Russian claims that Ukrainian actions were imminently threatening the safety of the ZNPP. Kiriyenko and Balitsky may have visited the plant to portray Russia as a capable custodian of the ZNPP, and their rhetorical posturing during the visit suggests that Russian officials may be stepping back from harsh warnings of imminent disaster at the plant. ISW continues to assess that Russian rhetoric surrounding the ZNPP is meant to discourage Western support for Ukraine by accusing Ukraine of nuclear irresponsibility, as well as to dissuade Ukrainian forces from conducting counteroffensive operations into occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.

Key Takeaways:

  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stated that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner forces are not in Belarus as of July 6, indicating that Prigozhin may be failing to uphold the deal Lukashenko mediated between Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin following Wagner’s armed rebellion on June 24.
  • Russian sources also indicated that Prigozhin is in Russia, although ISW cannot confirm Prigozhin’s whereabouts at this time.
  • Lukashenko appears to be distancing himself from the deal he reportedly mediated while continuing to tout his ability to mediate between Putin and a formerly loyal lieutenant in the first place, thus still highlighting Putin’s weakness.
  • Prigozhin’s ability to freely operate in Russia suggests that Prigozhin is still protected by some security guarantees and/or that the Kremlin continues to prioritize undermining his reputation in Russia over targeting Prigozhin physically or legally.
  • Select Russian ultranationalists criticized Russian state propaganda for attempting to villainize Prigozhin, however, suggesting that the Kremlin’s attempt to alienate the ultranationalist community from Prigozhin is not succeeding.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on July 6 and are continuing efforts to gradually degrade Russian manpower and logistics assets.
  • Ukrainian and Russian officials largely de-escalated their rhetoric regarding the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on July 6.
  • Russian political actors continue attempts to court or control Russian milbloggers, indicating that many view the milblogger community as a critical constituency.
  • Russian opposition media outlet Vertska reported that Russian forces and occupation authorities are conducting a campaign of systematic religious persecution in occupied Ukraine.
  • Russian milbloggers claimed that aspects of Russian defensive operations in southern Ukraine have severe limitations and may not be as effective as Russian sources have previously portrayed them.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted ground attacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Visual evidence confirms that Ukrainian forces have advanced southwest of Bakhmut as of July 6.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka-Donetsk City areas.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations along the administrative border between Zaporizhia and Donetsk oblasts and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian officials continue efforts to create territorial defense units in Russian border oblasts.
  • Occupation officials continue efforts to forcibly assimilate Ukrainian legal and cultural traditions into the Russian system in occupied territories.
  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed on July 6 that Russia will transfer all planned tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus by the end of 2023, if not earlier.
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