Lukashenko asserts that Prigozhin is located in Russia and not Belarus. The leader of Belarus stated on Thursday that mercenary leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin is in Russia, adding to the concerns surrounding Mr. Prigozhin’s whereabouts nearly two weeks after he called off his stunning armed rebellion against Moscow’s military leadership.
In a rare interview with reporters at Independence Palace, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus stated that Mr. Prigozhin was in the Russian city of St. Petersburg as of Thursday morning, contradicting statements he made days after the mutiny in which he stated that the leader of the Wagner paramilitary forces had arrived in Belarus. Since the rebellion nearly two weeks ago, Mr. Prigozhin has not been seen in public, and none of Mr. Lukashenko’s claims could be verified.
Mr. Prigozhin was “not on the territory of Belarus,” Mr. Lukashenko stated, adding that Wagner forces remained in their “permanent camps,” believed to be in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine.
The remarks did little to elucidate the aftermath of the most dramatic challenge to President Vladimir V. Putin’s authority during his 23 years in office. The Kremlin refused to comment on Mr. Lukashenko’s allegations, telling reporters on Thursday that it did not know where Mr. Prigozhin was.
We do not observe his activities. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri S. Peskov stated, “We neither have the capability nor the will to do so.”
Mr. Lukashenko also indicated that at least a portion of Wagner’s combat force, which was instrumental in Russia’s spring capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, might remain intact. He referred to the group as Russia’s “most powerful unit,” but stated that “the primary question of where Wagner will be deployed and what it will do is not up to me; it is up to the Russian leadership.”
At the end of last month, the Belarusian autocrat intervened in Mr. Prigozhin’s armed uprising and made a deal with the Wagner leader in which he agreed to withdraw his forces in exchange for amnesty for his fighters and safe passage to Belarus for himself.
Mr. Lukashenko stated that he spoke with Mr. Prigozhin on Wednesday, and Wagner would continue to “fulfill its duties to Russia for as long as it can.” He stated that Mr. Prigozhin was free, but he did not know what would happen in the future.
He stated that he did not anticipate that Mr. Putin would pursue immediate retribution for the failed mutiny. “If you believe Putin to be so malicious and vindictive that he will ‘kill’ Prigozhin tomorrow, you’re mistaken,” he said.
Mr. Lukashenko previously stated that he had promised Wagner fighters an “abandoned” military base, and satellite images verified by The New York Times last week revealed the construction of new temporary structures at an abandoned base approximately 80 miles from Minsk, Belarus. However, Mr. Lukashenko appeared less certain on Thursday regarding the potential presence of Wagner troops in Belarus.
“We will decide in the future whether they will visit and, if so, in what numbers,” he said.
Mr. Lukashenko stated that any Wagner units in Belarus could be called upon to defend the country and that the group’s willingness to fight for Belarus in the event of a conflict was the primary condition for granting it permission to relocate to Belarus.
“If we must activate this unit for national defense, then it will be activated immediately,” he said. “And their experience will be in high demand.”
After the uprising in Russia at the end of last month, Mr. Lukashenko positioned himself as a power mediator who helped avert a crisis, despite his growing isolation from the rest of the world. Mr. Lukashenko appears to be attempting to improve his reputation as a key participant in resolving one of the gravest crises of Mr. Putin’s tenure as Russian president.
By granting an interview to a small group of reporters at his presidential palace on Thursday, Mr. Lukashenko may be attempting to establish a degree of independence from his benefactors in Moscow while gaining support from an electorate more interested in peace than joining Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine.