20230626 Prigozhin
Under a deal mediated by Lukashenko on Saturday to halt a mutinous march on Moscow by Prigozhin’s mercenary fighters, Prigozhin was meant to move to Belarus. Image Credit: AP file

MOSCOW: Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin flew to Belarus from Russia on Tuesday after a mutiny that dealt the biggest blow to President Vladimir Putin’s authority since he came to power more than 23 years ago.

Putin initially vowed to crush the mutiny, comparing it to the wartime turmoil that ushered in the revolution of 1917 and then a civil war, but hours later a deal was clinched to allow Prigozhin and some of his fighters to go to Belarus.

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Prigozhin, a 62-year-old former petty thief who rose to become Russia’s most powerful mercenary, was last seen in public when he left the southern Russian city of Rostov on Saturday, shaking hands and quipping that he had “cheered up” people.

Flightradar24 showed an Embraer Legacy 600 business jet that appeared in Russia’s Rostov region at 0232 GMT and later began a descent at 0420 GMT near Minsk, the Belarusian capital.

The identification codes of the aircraft matched those of a jet linked by the United States to Autolex Transport, which is linked to Prigozhin by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control that enforces sanctions.

“I see Prigozhin is already flying in on this plane,” Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was quoted as saying by state news agency BELTA.

“Yes, indeed, he is in Belarus today.” Under a deal mediated by Lukashenko on Saturday to halt a mutinous march on Moscow by Prigozhin’s mercenary fighters, Prigozhin was meant to move to Belarus.

Lukashenko said he had convinced Prigozhin in an emotional, expletive-laden phone call to scrap the mutiny over what the Wagner boss called corruption and incompetence in the Russian military command. He said he warned Prigozhin halfway on the march to Moscow that “you’ll just be crushed like a bug”.

Lukashenko, both an old acquiantance of Prigozhin and close ally of Putin, said that Putin had sought his help and that he had advised the Russian president against “rushing” to suppress the Wagner mutineers.

Speaking from Cathedral Square inside the Kremlin, Putin thanked Russia’s army and security services for stopping a civil war from breaking out in the world’s biggest nuclear power.

Prigozhin’s “march for justice”, which he said was aimed at settling scores with Putin’s military top brass whom he cast as treasonous, has raised the prospect of turmoil in Russia while undermining Putin’s reputation as an all-powerful leader.

The Kremlin said Putin’s position had however not been shaken by the mutiny, dismissing such interpretations as hysteria from “pseudo-specialists.” It said the events showed how Russian society had consolidated around the president.


Just hours after casting the mutineers as traitors on Saturday, Putin agreed to a deal to drop criminal charges against them in exchange for their return to camps, with Prigozhin and some of his fighters to move to Belarus.

It is not yet clear whether Wagner - created to fight proxy wars for the Kremlin in a deniable form - will survive the mutiny, and if it does, what it might do next.

Prigozhin, who has bragged about meddling in US elections, said last week his fighting force was 25,000 strong.

Lukashenko said Belarus was not building any camps for Wagner group, but had offered the mercenaries an abandoned military base.

With strong ties to Russian military intelligence (GRU), Wagner has been able to recruit some of Russia’s best special forces soldiers with significant cash salaries and generous payouts for families of fallen soldiers.

One option, if Wagner survives, would be for it to return to Africa - where it has gained a fearsome reputation especially in Central African Republic and Mali - or to attack Ukraine from the north, opening up a new Russian front in the war there.

While the Federal Security Service said it had dropped a criminal case against Prigozhin for armed mutiny, Putin said that the finances of Prigozhin’s catering firm would be investigated, saying Wagner and its founder had received almost $2 billion from Russia in the past year.

Putin said Wagner had received 86 billion roubles ($1 billion) from the defence ministry between May 2022 and May 2023.

In addition, Prigozhin’s Concord catering company made 80 billion roubles from state contracts to supply food to the Russian army, Putin said.

“I do hope that, as part of this work, no one stole anything, or, let’s say, stole less, but we will, of course, investigate all of this,” he said.