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Mercenary boss returns to Russia to collect money and guns

RIGA, Latvia — Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin was in Russia on Thursday, according to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, raising further questions about the murky agreement under which Prigozhin avoided insurgency charges for a failed rebellion that posed a brazen challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority.

The Kremlin, in announcing the agreement on June 24, had said that Prigozhin and fighters loyal to him could avoid prosecution by leaving Russia for Belarus. Russian authorities then quickly began dismantling Wagner’s operations and the rest of Prigozhin’s sprawling business empire.

But on Thursday, 12 days after Prigozhin abruptly turned around columns of fighters that he had sent rolling toward Moscow, Lukashenko said the mercenary boss had been back in his home city of St. Petersburg and may have flown to Moscow on Thursday morning. Lukashenko said a final deal on the move by Prigozhin and his fighters to Belarus was still not settled.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on June 6 claimed that Wagner Group leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin had left Belarus and returned to Russia. (Video: Reuters)

Prigozhin’s continued presence in Russia was confirmed by a St. Petersburg businessman, who said the Wagner boss had returned home to reclaim money and weapons seized by the Russian security services.

“It’s not the end of Prigozhin,” the businessman said, speaking Wednesday on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “They returned all his money to him. More than this, today they even gave back to him his honorary pistol, the Glock, and another weapon. He came to take it himself.”

Prigozhin, however, could still be vulnerable to new criminal cases if Putin fears he looks weak amid a barrage of criticism in Russia for dropping the insurgency charges. Putin, while refusing to say Prigozhin’s name, has publicly raised a question of financial crimes in connection with numerous contracts that Prigozhin’s businesses had with the government.

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The president said last week that authorities would carefully investigate the $2 billion paid to Wagner and Prigozhin’s Concord group, and a reporter for the state-controlled Channel One television channel declared Wednesday that the investigation was ongoing.

But Prigozhin still appears to have sufficient leverage in Russia, after Wagner earned a reputation as arguably Russia’s most effective assault force in Ukraine. That stature, and his many connections in high places, seemed to at least partly explain why he was allowed to walk around St. Petersburg and potentially Moscow, apparently with no fear of arrest, even after he was called a traitor and supposedly exiled.

Officials in Moscow appear to be wrestling with the difficult question of how Wagner can be replaced, both in Ukraine and in its operations in Africa, where it has extended Russia’s reach through its security contracts with several governments.

Even top Russian officials were in the dark about the deal and what it means for Russia, Putin’s authority, Prigozhin’s fate and Wagner’s future.

“We still don’t know exactly what happened,” said a member of top Russian diplomatic circles, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. This person said that the crisis appeared to have passed and that Moscow was “calm,” adding: “If we see this situation as a crisis, at least the most immediate consequences have been minimized. We see there are no clear consequences noticeable so far.”

In a sign of how deeply the crisis disrupted lines of military authority in Russia, he said questions about Wagner’s future relations with the Defense Ministry “remain open.”

Lukashenko, speaking at a news conference Thursday, said that Prigozhin was “a free man” but that he did not know what might happen later. He said that the deal allowing Prigozhin and Wagner to relocate to Belarus was “being observed” but that details had not been fully resolved.

At the same time, Lukashenko hinted that Putin could overturn the deal, the Belarusian state news agency BelTA reported, adding that Wagner’s relocation to Belarus “will depend on what decision the leadership of Wagner and Russia make.”

The Belarusian leader said he had been in phone contact with Prigozhin “more than once,” including on Wednesday afternoon to discuss Wagner’s “further actions.”

“He told me one thing: ‘We will work in the name of Russia, for the good of Russia, and we will fulfill our duty to the end, as we have agreed and as decided by the relevant authorities,’” Lukashenko said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov deflected questions about Prigozhin’s whereabouts. “We don’t follow his movements,” Peskov said. “We have neither the ability nor the desire to do so.”

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Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the Paris-based political consultancy R.Politik, said it appeared that the Kremlin was giving Prigozhin time in Russia to deal with his complex web of business operations, many of which directly served Russian state interests.

“On the one hand, we see that Prigozhin continues to be criticized in the media and they have closed down his media holding,” Stanovaya said. “He is being destroyed politically, but physically he is being allowed to continue his business, which can be seen as an attempt to give him time to finish up.” He would not be in Russia without Putin’s permission, she added.

“Putin is acting like this not because he fears Prigozhin or because he has no other choice, but because he decided that this will be simpler,” she said. “It means that he does not see Prigozhin anymore as a person who represents any danger to him.”

Until Prigozhin’s rebellion, Russian elites, notoriously timid, made no signs of confronting Putin. But many now see his decision to drop insurgency charges against Prigozhin as showing weakness.

Alexandra Prokopenko, a former adviser to a senior official at Russia’s Central Bank, said many were still shocked at how Putin handled the rebellion.

“Everyone expected there to be repressions as a consequence, but it seems like this hasn’t happened,” Prokopenko said. “And now it seems you can [gather] thousands of armed men and you can go with them to Moscow, which violates every written and unwritten law of the Russian Federation. And what are you getting after that? You just need to go to Belarus. And they just give you back all your cash, all your guns.”

In a sign of Prigozhin’s potential vulnerability, pro-Kremlin media mounted an apparently coordinated campaign to discredit him and undermine his popularity, which had surged before his rebellion. They aired video and photos of his luxury home, showing bundles of cash, weapons, fake passports, and wigs used for disguises.

Other video showed gold, an indoor pool, a personal helicopter, and a corner with a Wagner flag and a mannequin in a black suit, draped in more than a dozen military awards, including Russia’s highest honor, the Hero of Russia medal, awarded in June 2022.

Grey Zone, a Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel, and other Wagner channels aired images purporting to show Prigozhin wearing wigs and a series of disguises.

Lukashenko said that Belarus had offered Wagner the use of any one of dozens of former military bases but that “they have a different vision,” without spelling out what that was. He said Wagner fighters were currently at their permanent bases, without specifying locations, although Wagner is known to have bases in southern Russia and Ukraine.

The questions about Prigozhin’s whereabouts and the continued negotiations over the deal follow widespread dismay in the mainstream pro-Kremlin press about the agreement that allowed Prigozhin to go free.

During their short-lived rebellion, Prigozhin and his fighters shot down seven Russian aircraft and a Wagner convoy got within 125 miles of Moscow.

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On Tuesday, Prigozhin managed to recover some of the items seized from his home and office by Russian Interior Ministry special operations police, including 10 billion rubles — about $110 million — in cash and personal weapons, including a Glock pistol awarded to him by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, according to Fontanka, a St. Petersburg media outlet.

Since the rebellion, Kremlin propagandists have portrayed Putin as a wise leader who averted a civil war. But the deal to drop insurgency charges roiled members of Russia’s elite. News that the mercenary leader was back in Russia only deepened the sense of disquiet.

Lukashenko said Putin’s relations with Prigozhin went back decades and were “maybe even more than kind.” Wagner, he added, is “a very powerful fighting unit, and there is hardly a unit in the world equal to the Wagner [Private Military Company].” Lukashenko claimed that Wagner would not be used to attack Ukraine from Belarus, but could act in the defense of his country.

Lukashenko said on June 27 that Prigozhin had arrived in Belarus, but no images of his presence there emerged. Flight tracking data from Flightradar24 reported that two jets associated with Prigozhin arrived in Belarus that morning, one from southern Russia and one from St. Petersburg. A group that tracks military and flight movements in Belarus, the Belarusian Hajun Project, reported that the two Prigozhin jets flew to St. Petersburg later that day.

Early Thursday, Prigozhin’s jet was tracked flying to Moscow from St. Petersburg, the Reuters news agency reported. But there was no confirmation that he was on board.


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