Russia woos Haftar, but can the Derna floods give Libyans another chance?

Moscow seized the disaster diplomacy initiative after the deadly Derna floods, with Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov arriving in eastern Libya with a promise of aid. Russia is helping Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar while seeking geostrategic payback. But the Derna tragedy has also drawn the US back into Libya, and that could be a game-changer.

On a moonless night shortly after two dams in the port city of Derna collapsed, killing thousands, a hulking Russian Ilyushin IL-76 military cargo aircraft landed at an airport near Benghazi in eastern Libya.

“Russian Defence Ministry sends logistical reinforcements, rescue & search equipment after Storm Daniel,” noted a post by a local Libyan news site days after the landing on X, formerly Twitter.

Accompanying photographs showed teams unloading aid packages from the aircraft while a military truck, draped with the flags of Russia and Libya, waits on the tarmac at Benghazi’s Benina airport.

The messaging was clear and gained momentum over the next few days: the Russian defence ministry was on the ground, providing a rapid response in eastern Libya, a region controlled by strongman Khalifa Haftar, head of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

On Sunday, September 17 – a week after “Libya’s 9/11” as the Derna disaster has been dubbed – Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov himself was in town, meeting Haftar at the strongman’s Benghazi office.

The Russian defence ministry’s No. 2 is fast becoming Moscow’s “Africa Man”, making several trips to the continent, particularly coup-hit former French colonies such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

Yevkurov was last in Libya when Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash near Moscow on August 23. Over the past few years, Wagner provided indispensable services to Haftar, securing oil wells and deploying fighters during the eastern Libyan strongman’s 2019 assault on the capital, Tripoli, in western Libya. Following the Wagner chief’s demise, Yevkurov is seen as the main organiser of the post-Prigozhin era of Russian relationships with Africa.

Read moreRussian general, master spy duo organise in Africa after Prigozhin’s demise

Just a day after Prigozhin’s death, Haftar showed that he was ahead of the intrigues in Moscow when his Benghazi media office released a photograph of the Russian deputy defence minister gifting the Libyan strongman a pistol during his visit.

Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov offers Khalifa Haftar a pistol in Benghazi on August 24, 2023. © Khalifa Khaftar media office via AFP

With its 1,700-kilometer Mediterranean coastline across from southern Europe, and its desert land borders providing a gateway to the Sahel and central Africa, Libya is considered vital to Russia’s interests across the two continents. The oil-rich North African nation is divided between the UN-recognised government administering western Libya and Haftar-controlled territory in the east.

Russia has proved to be a new, loyal ally to Haftar. But the septuagenarian Libyan strongman is not known for his geopolitical fidelity. In the course of an intrigue-packed military career, Haftar has switched sides, worked with rival powers, and managed to save his skin while amassing a fortune. The Derna disaster has repositioned him at the centre of a North African “Great Game”, with the victims of the floods in danger of turning into pawns.

Seeking docking rights for Russian warships

Russia’s outreach in eastern Libya predates the Derna disaster and has been largely opaque and shadowy.

Just two days before Yevkurov’s humanitarian trip to Benghazi, the Wall Street Journal published a report warning that Russia was seeking access for its warships in eastern Libya.

“The Russians have requested access to the ports of either Benghazi or Tobruk,” the US daily reported, citing Libyan officials and advisers. Yevkurov’s meeting with Haftar in August focused on discussing “long-term docking rights in areas he controls in the war-torn country’s east,” the newspaper added.

Prigozhin’s death and the Russian defence ministry’s efforts to fold Wagner mercenaries – including around 1,200 fighters still stationed in Haftar’s facilities – into a direct chain of command have increased the geopolitical stakes, according to Emad Baadi, nonresident senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Atlantic Council.

“It’s about securing a warm water port on the Mediterranean, at Europe and NATO’s southern flank, which has been a covert objective of Russia for quite a long time, but on which it hadn’t made inroads, partly because its presence in Libya was never made fully official, let’s say. This is slightly changing now, given the increased high profile, and nature of the visits that we’ve seen with the deputy minister of defence,” said Baadi.

Since NATO intervened in the 2011 uprising to oust Muammar Gaddafi, Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently criticised the operation and used Libya as an example of the Western military alliance’s failure.

More than a decade later, Putin is determined to turn that failure to Russia’s advantage.

“I think they are in Libya to stay, both for resource extraction and strategic positioning, from where they can basically threaten southern Europe and destabilise the security of southern Europe,” said a Western diplomat who declined to be named. “Putin wants to undermine democracy in Europe and what better way to do that than to use Libya as a launching pad for cynically sending illegal migrants into southern Europe. I think this is a medium-to-long-term strategic plan.”

From Tartus to Tobruk, or Benghazi

Russia’s efforts to lobby Haftar for naval access are aimed at duplicating Moscow’s achievements in Syria following the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, according to experts.

Following its 2015 intervention on Assad’s behalf, Russia has substantially increased the use of its naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus, the only Mediterranean port to which Moscow has access.

With a naval presence in either Benghazi or Tobruk, Russia could significantly increase its reach, by having “surface-to-air missiles deployed, anti-ship cruise missiles, electronic warfare equipment, but more importantly, be able to deploy the Russian Mediterranean fleet to set port,” said Baadi.

“This setup in having both, the eastern flank of Europe [from Tartus] and also the southern flank of Europe [from Libya] presents a strategic advantage, both vis-a-vis Europe and against NATO as well,” he added.

‘Discussing fire safety with an arsonist’

Given the geostrategic stakes, the US is keeping a close eye on Russia’s outreach to Haftar in the wake of the Derna flooding.

Just days after Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yevkurov left Benghazi, the Americans were on the tarmac.

On Thursday, September 21, General Michael Langley, commander of the US Africa Command, and Richard Norland, US special envoy to Libya, arrived in Benghazi in an aircraft bearing humanitarian aid.

After a stop in Tripoli, where they held talks with representatives of the country’s internationally recognised government, the two senior US officials met the strongman of eastern Libya.

“Gen. Langley met with LNA commander Haftar in Benghazi to discuss the importance of forming a democratically elected national government, reunifying the Libyan military, and safeguarding Libyan sovereignty by removing foreign mercenaries,” the US Embassy in Libya said in an X post.

The messaging drew snide quips from Libya analysts monitoring the LNA’s crackdown on journalists and activists following a protest by flood-hit Derna residents outside the city’s landmark Al Sahaba mosque.

“Meeting Haftar to discuss democratic elections is like discussing fire safety with an arsonist. Shut the door on your way out mate,” said Anas El Gomati, director of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, on X.

“I think the West is very naïve about how to engage with Haftar,” said Tarek Megerisi, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “My advice to the US would be to take a very strong line in pushing back against the securitisation of the Derna crisis,” he added, referring to what Amnesty International has called the LNA’s “well-honed machinery of repression to silence criticism, muzzle civil society and evade responsibility”.

‘America’s man’ or ‘Russia’s man’ in Libya?

US policy on Libya over the past few years has been characterised by muddle and absence, according to many analysts.

“Washington is playing catchup on Libya because policy is always overshadowed by other priorities,” said Frederic Wehrey, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Libya surfaces in US consciousness when there are threat concerns: ISIS [the Islamic State group], energy security and Russia’s spoiling influence in Libya.”

Since 2014 – when his military “Operation Dignity” on Benghazi split the country in two – Haftar has positioned himself as an indispensable Libyan player who has at various points engaged with the US, Russia, France, Italy, the EU, Egypt and the UAE, even as he dismays officials in global and regional capitals.

A Gaddafi-era army officer, Haftar began the post-2011 chapter as “America’s man” – the product of a 20-year stay in Virginia after the CIA failed to find another country to house his commando force engaged in covert operations against the longtime Libyan dictator. 

“In the back of Russia’s mind, Haftar is still “America’s man” in Libya, especially after the twenty years that Haftar spent in Virginia,” noted Khalil El Hasse in a Washington Institute briefing.

“On whether Haftar is America’s man or Russia’s man, I think he thrives on being in the grey zone – which is fully, neither. But I do think that the Americans have displayed a naiveite that perhaps the Russians have not because the Russians are as opportunistic, if not more opportunistic, than Haftar himself,” said Baadi.

The US and its European allies have played the opportunistic game with Haftar, but they are falling behind Russia in strategy and the Libyan people have been the biggest losers, according to experts.

“A variety of international powers have crafted their relationship with this personality under the guise of counterterrorism,” said Stephanie Williams, former UN special envoy to Libya and currently a nonresident senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution. “Nations tend to prioritise these kind of discrete files – whether it’s counterterrorism or oil or counter-migration – at the expense of frankly, the kind of institution-building that was needed in the wake of 2011.”

More than a decade after Gaddafi’s ouster, the international roadmap for the North African country is focused on a “Libyan-led” process towards parliamentary and presidential elections.

The process, led by the current UN envoy to Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, a veteran Senegalese diplomat, has a whiff of dismaying familiarity for most Libyans, who have endured election cancellations, obstructions and irregularities by their political elites.

During the September 10 protests outside the Al Sahaba mosque in Derna, residents vented their rage against Aguila Saleh, the eastern-based parliament speaker and Haftar ally. At 79, Saleh is viewed as a symbol of Libya’s political malaise, unilaterally pushing “legislation” through the chamber that favour his cronies and Haftar allies.

Saleh’s nephew, Abdulmonem al-Ghaithi, was Derna’s appointed mayor when the dam disaster that was “decades in the making” struck. Ghaithi was sacked shortly after the tragedy.

Read moreLibya’s deadly dam collapse was decades in the making

The Derna disaster could provide a tipping point for change, and it’s one that should be seized by countries supporting democracy in Libya before the Russians – under a new “Africa man” – can play spoiler.

“Derna does in fact represent an opportunity for responsible international and regional actors to correct the trajectory of their policy on Libya, to first of all stand with the Libyan people,” said Williams. “There is a moral responsibility now because what happened in Libya is going to happen somewhere else, we’re going have a climate change-driven event that will be compounded by conflict, chaos and misgovernance.”

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Notorious Russian general, master spy duo organise in Africa after Prigozhin’s demise

In recent weeks, Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and General Andrei Averyanov from the GRU military intelligence agency have made several trips to Africa. The two are increasingly seen as the main organisers of the post-Prigozhin era of Russian relationships with Africa following the Wagner Group chief’s demise in a fiery plane crash at the end of August. 

Yunus-bek Yevkurov, Russia‘s Deputy Defence Minister, and Andrei Averyanov, a notorious general from the GRU military intelligence agency, touched down in Bamako, Mali, on Saturday, September 16.  They were slated to meet political leaders from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, according to local media and various sources on Telegram.

This was not the first of the duo’s visits to Africa. They have made several visits to the continent since the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin on August 23, 2023… and even prior to that. Yevkurov, always flanked by Averyanov, was in Libya – one of the main African bases for Wagner’s mercenaries – the day before the plane crash back in Russia which killed the Wagner Group chief, as well as two others from the organisation’s top leadership who could have replaced him. 

Yevkurov, the negotiator

The meeting in Mali was not coincidental: Yevkurov and Averyanov were scheduled to hold talks with representatives of the countries Prigozhin had last visited. Riley Moeder, an Africa specialist studying the role of Wagner’s mercenaries on the continent at the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research center, holds that Russia is playing on a sense of continuity: “Prigozhin was filmed in that region before his plane crashed, and this region is looking for support. So Moscow wants to assure them that it remains committed to that region,” she says.

The Russian deputy defence minister had already visited Mali and Burkina Faso in the first week of September to assure local authorities that Moscow would “do everything in its power to help” them, The New York Times reported in an investigation into the future of Wagner’s African “empire” published on September 8.

Yevkurov and Averyanov would therefore appear to African leaders to be the successors to the late Wagner boss. What’s more, as The New York Times reports in the same investigation, they also met with some of the remaining Wagner mercenaries in Mali. Several media outlets have already presented the GRU’s Averyanov as “Prigozhin’s successor” in Africa.

Indeed, the profiles of both men correspond to some of the roles hitherto played by Wagner’s former leader.

For example, Deputy Defence Minister Yevkurov is a decorated general with “quite a good military reputation”, says Ivan Klyszcz, a specialist in Russian foreign policy at the International Centre for Defence and Security in Estonia. That may be enough to inspire respect among the Wagner mercenaries.

Yevkurov also has a solid reputation as a peacemaker and negotiator from his time spent in Ingushetia, an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation located in the Greater Caucasus mountain range. He led this Russian republic from 2008 to 2019, at a time when the region “was more violent than Chechnya“, says Klyszcz, who has focussed on this part of Russia. “The region was almost as safe as everywhere else in Russia when he left.”

For the Kremlin, Yevkurov has a certain diplomatic finesse that is perfectly suited for being “the new face of relations between the Russian government when dealing with these African regimes”, says Andreas Heinemann-Gruder, a Russia specialist who studies private paramilitary groups at the University of Bonn.

Averyanov and the GRU assassins

Diplomatic finesse is arguably not Averyanov’s strong suit. General Averyanov is best known for having led the GRU’s infamous 29155 unit, which specialises in covert operations like sabotage and assassination. Spies from this unit are suspected of having blown up an ammunition depot in the Czech Republic in 2014, attempting to stage a pro-Serbian coup in Montenegro in 2016 and the attempted poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in 2018. 

Read moreUnit 29155, the Russian spies specialising in ‘sabotage and assassinations’

In other words, “[Averyanov’s] qualification is preparing special operations abroad. He is the ‘hit and kill guy’ you call when you need this kind of service,” says Heinemann-Gruder.

What’s in it for African regimes? “Averyanov can … take over some elements of regime security, and not only bodyguard services, but also in [his] area of specialisation: repression and targeted assassination,” adds Klyszcz.

But Averyanov is more than a cold-blooded killer. “Averyanov is a decorated veteran from Afghanistan and Chechnya and was also active in Moldova and Crimea. As with all Russian special operatives, he is trained to take the initiative, operate cut off from superiors’ orders, and make links with local allies,” says Jeff Hawn, Russia specialist and an external consultant for the New Lines Institute. This pedigree makes him an ideal candidate to negotiate with local military groups, just as Wagner’s managers would do when arriving in a new country in Africa.  

Yevkurov, the shrewd politician, and Averyanov, the master spy, thus appear to be as different as they are complementary. However, they both have one quality in common setting them apart from the late Yevgeny Prigozhin: “They’re both reliable, loyal soldiers who are not the type of personality which could be expected to ‘go rogue’,” says Hawn. 

“Loyalty is a very powerful advantage in the Putin system right now,” says Klyszcz. This would be especially the case for anyone aspiring to take over for Prigozhin, who, after his abortive rebellion attempt against the Russian defence ministry in June, came to epitomise treachery in the eyes of the Russian leadership.

More openly official support

Is all of this enough for the Kremlin to hand the keys to Wagner’s kingdom in Africa to the duo? According to the experts interviewed by FRANCE 24, they will play a role, but not as sole operators. Yevkurov and Averyanov embody, as representatives of the Russian state, a move from the semi-clandestine operations and relations carried out by Wagner to more open relations with the African regimes in place. “It’s no longer hybrid warfare but official support. They show that communication is continuing with Russia, but now through official channels,” says Heinemann-Gruder. 

But this does not mean that the structures set up by Wagner will simply be absorbed by the Russian ministry of defence. Wagner’s very decentralised model is still useful to Moscow, because “it’s easier to adapt to local situations. What is happening in Mali is not what is happening in the Central African Republic,” says Moeder. The situation in Mali, with its imperative to fight terrorism, has little in common with the nature of operations in the Central African Republic, where Wagner’s main aim is to secure lucrative mining activities. Wagner also runs propaganda operations in several countries and even manages a brewery and vodka distillery in the Central African Republic.

Such diverse activities and hybrid warfare, wherein conventional tactics are blended with subversive actions,  “require greater dexterity than the Russian security bureaucracy is likely capable of”, writes Joseph Siegle, Director of the Center for African Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, in an article published on The Conversation.

Finally, it will still be useful to let the mercenaries carry out certain actions to be able to continue denying official involvement on the part of Moscow in the event of exactions or reprisals in a country.

Yevkurov and Averyanov are thus an important part of the first stage of the reorganisation of Russian operations in Africa. “The Russians are beginning to learn some lessons from past experience with Wagner and other PMCs (private military companies). We can expect less autonomy and clear political leadership,” says Heinemann-Gruder.

And if Moscow’s progress in taking control of operations is rather slow, it’s also because the Wagner Group also has well-entrenched financial interests in Africa. “There is a web of [Russian] oligarchs and businessmen who benefitted from Prigozhin’s businesses and shell companies, and who have everything to gain from the system remaining,” says Moeder. Moscow’s interests therefore also lie in making sure that everyone involved in Wagner’s African operations continues to benefit. 

This article was translated from the original in French. 

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Another Russian mercenary group shows discontent with the Kremlin: ‘A sign of more to come’

At the end of August, Ukraine declared it had finally managed to pierce Russia’s first line of defence after retaking the small village of Robotyne in Ukraine’s south. This key advance coincided with a Russian mercenary group’s threat to stop fighting on Russia’s behalf on the front lines of the village and could be a sign of more anti-Kremlin sentiment brewing among those fighting for Moscow.

Robotyne has been liberated,” Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar announced on August 28.

Although the tiny village, which had a pre-war population of fewer than 500 people, may be of little importance in itself, it lies along a strategic road that leads to the Russian-occupied road and railway hub of Tokmak. From there, another road leads to the key city of Melitopol, which, prior to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, was known to Ukrainians as the “gateway” to the peninsula. Last week’s victory was therefore an important advance for Ukraine.

Just a few days earlier, however, fighters from Rusich, a small Russian neo-Nazi paramilitary group stationed at Robotyne’s front line, had threatened to lay down their arms – a move that may have contributed to Russia’s stinging loss there.

The official reason for the threat to lay down arms, Rusich explained in an August 25 statement on Telegram, was that one of the group’s top commanders and founding members, Yan Petrovsky, had been detained in Finland and faced extradition to Ukraine – and the Russian government was not doing much about it.

Petrovsky, a dual Russian-Norwegian national, co-founded Rusich back in 2014 to take part in the Russian occupation of Donbas and is believed to have been a contractor for the Wagner Group at one point. He faces various terrorism-related charges in Ukraine and risks being sentenced to between 15 and 20 years in prison if he is extradited.

In a series of messages screen-grabbed by the research project Antifascist Europe, Rusich members expressed frustration with their treatment by the Russian authorities. 

“If the country cannot protect its citizens, why should the citizens protect the country?” asked one.

According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), the group did indeed seem to be operating near Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast, describing it as “a critical area of the front line where the Russian military command likely cannot afford for any units to rebel and refuse to conduct combat missions”.

Soon after ISW issued its analysis, Robotyne fell to Ukraine.

There has been no official confirmation – either from Rusich or the Russian defence ministry – that the group’s fighters did stop fighting.

According to Jeff Hawn, a non-resident fellow at the Washington, DC-based think-tank New Lines Institute and an expert in Russian military matters, it would have been a credible scenario.

“There’s a very strong possibility” that the mercenaries laid down arms, which would likely have contributed to the fall of Robotyne, he said. Russia is so short of fighters it cannot replace units that give up, he said, adding that we likely won’t know “for years” what really happened. 

Hawn said the reason for a revolt would likely have less to do with the detention of the group’s leader than with a loss of motivation among Russian mercenary fighters in general, coupled with Moscow’s increasing inability to keep them under control.

“These guys are likely just looking for an excuse to get out,” he said. “They’re realising that Ukraine isn’t just going to break and give up.”

The situation for paramilitary groups has been further complicated by Wagner’s attempted mutiny back in June and the death of the mercenary group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, late last month.

Under Prigozhin’s leadership, Hawn explained, Wagner had long served as an organising tool for other Russian militia groups operating in Ukraine. Prigozhin had also established a culture of paying his mercenaries well, and in dollars – a culture that spread to the other militias fighting in Ukraine.

“Even though he had a reputation of being a tough guy, a thug, Prigozhin was known to take good care of his people, paying them more, and in hard currency.” 

Following the group’s botched mutiny, however – and Moscow’s subsequent attempts to try to dissolve the group – the working conditions for Prigozhin’s “militia collective” in Ukraine worsened.

“They’re probably getting paid in rubles now – if they’re getting paid at all,” Hawn said.

“They’re also probably not getting supplied, because militia groups are at the very lowest end of the totem pole when it comes to Russian logistics, which are completely overstretched already.”

Before his death, Prigozhin had long complained that the Russian military was not supplying his mercenaries with enough ammunition, even threatening to pull his troops from the front line in the hard-fought city of Bakhmut. 

Prigozhin’s death – and that of his reported right-hand man Dmitry Utkin in a plane crash on August 23 – also wiped out a whole shadow power structure built upon both connections and the ability to command the “thugs and criminals” fighting as mercenaries.  

“There’s no one like Prigozhin who currently has the will, or ability to challenge the government directly,” Hawn said. With the Wagner leader now out of the picture, he said, it will become even harder for Moscow to control the dozen or more militia groups still in Ukraine.

Even worse for Moscow, Hawn said, would be if they were willing to switch sides.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if some of these guys repent and suddenly joined the Free Russian Legion, especially if they’re getting paid in dollars,” he said, referring to a group of pro-Kyiv Russian fighters that claimed to have staged several attacks in Russia’s Belgorod region in recent months. 

 “I do think the incident in Robotyne is significant, and that it’s a sign of more things to come.”

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Wagner group’s future hanging in the balance after Prigozhin’s death

Wagner military chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was officially confirmed dead by Russian authorities on Sunday. The fate of his mercenary group – and its operations in Africa and the Middle East – now hangs in the balance. FRANCE 24 spoke to Anastasiya Shapochkina, a political analyst and researcher with a focus on Russian domestic policy, about possible scenarios for the private army’s future.

Wagner military chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was officially confirmed dead on Sunday. Forensic testing on the 10 bodies recovered from the site of the plane crash on August 23 “conform to the manifest” for the flight, Russian officials said. 

The plane crash came exactly two months after Prigozhin staged a day-long mutiny against Russia’s military, leading his fighters from Ukraine towards Moscow. President Vladimir Putin had slammed the advance as “treason” and vowed punishment for those involved.

Dmitry Utkin, a Russian army officer believed to be Prigozhin’s right-hand man, was among those killed in the crash. Utkin had run the mercenary group’s operations since it was founded in 2014 and was responsible for overall command and combat training.  

Valery Chekalov, who played a key role in the group’s finances, was also killed in the crash.

In the wake of Prigozhin and two of his top lieutenant’s deaths, questions are now being raised about the Wagner group’s future, and its extensive operations in Africa and the Middle East.

Wagner funds its war chest by exploiting natural resources in the countries where it operates. Gold trafficked illegally in Sudan finds its way directly into Russian state coffers.

Wagner group mercenaries have also fought in some of the Ukrainian conflict’s bloodiest battles, notably spearheading the capture of the eastern city of Bakhmut. Thousands of Wagner fighters are currently stationed in Belarus, where they relocated after Prigozhin’s failed rebellion against Moscow.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Anastasiya Shapochkina, President and founder of the Eastern Circles thinktank and lecturer on EU-Russia in Sciences Po Paris, about possible scenarios for the private army’s future.

FRANCE 24: Why are the Wagner Group’s activities important for Russia and what do you think lies ahead for the group after Prigozhin’s death?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: There are several possible scenarios. Wagner is a money-making machine which exploits gold and resources from Africa in exchange for assuring the security of African leaders. This business is important for Russia.

One of two things can happen: either the Wagner brand will be changed and it will keep the same functions, with attempts to integrate them into the Russian army, or the brand will be preserved in order to continue recruitment and change the leaders.

To devalue the Wagner brand, the Kremlin would bring down the rest of its leaders and send out the message that everybody who is not a leader can go home to their families. The activities of Wagner would be merged with other activities. It would lose its resources and become a shell company. This is the most likely scenario.

Before the events of June, we thought Prigozhin and Utkine were totally controlled by the regime, and the regime thought the same. A third scenario, the least likely one, is for Wagner to continue as a group with a new leader and it will eventually regain value. This scenario is unlikely because the Russian elite has understood the danger of mercenaries accumulating too much power and influence.

FRANCE 24: How is the turmoil around Wagner going to affect the situation in Ukraine?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: Other than holding Bakhmut, Prigozhin cannot claim any huge military success in Ukraine. The Russian army management is intact, with the highest commanders still in place. [General Sergei] Surovikin, [a former commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine from October 2022 to January 2023 who was fired the day Prigozhin’s aircraft crashed] had been removed, but the two highest commanders – Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov – have been maintained in their positions.

We can expect a worsening performance from the Russian army in Ukraine whatever the future holds in store for Wagner.

The credit Prigozhin gave to Wagner is over exaggerated. Wagner has not been effective in Ukraine and they have not been original in their military strategy besides proposing the sacrifice of prisoners. To me, turbulence within Wagner won’t change the course of the war. The Russian army is bogged down in this conflict and nothing can change that.

FRANCE 24: What kind of prospects does Russia have for playing a role in various African theatres following Prigozhin’s death, and will the operations continue to be as lucrative as in the past?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: Like any other company, Wagner can withstand a blow to its leadership. The CEO does not matter, he can be replaced. There are many other people on the ground ensuring the personal security of African leaders and securing resources. All of this is already happening through other private military companies (PMCs). The African cash flow will be assured in the long term.

FRANCE 24: Russia has been calling on other PMCs to achieve its foreign policy goals, especially in Africa. Do you see a paradox in the proliferation of PMCs when the Kremlin has already experienced a significant threat to its hold on power from Prigozhin’s Wagner Group?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: I see it as dissolving Wagner to give birth to another Wagner. PMCs have been born out of this dynamic; the downfall of one does not mean the end of them all. When the Russian state empowers a PMC, tens of thousands of people acquire weapons. This is internally a time bomb for Russia. If you have dozens of PMCs all over Russia, you have local oligarchs, governors, regional leaders (like Kadyrov), who are heavily armed, and this represents a weaponisation of society.

The fact that you have tens of thousands of men with weapons and military experience seals the political fate of Russia, and it is Putin who created the end of the monopolisation of military power in Russia. As soon as you have scores of the political elite who have PMCs, it is impossible to imagine that each of these people would not have a stab at power, making a peaceful transition of power highly unlikely.

FRANCE 24: Two days after Prigozhin’s death, Putin signed a decree forcing paramilitary fighters to swear an oath to the Russian flag. What does this say about the Russian president’s trust in his own security forces?

Anastasiya Shapochkina: This is revelatory of the level of the Russian president’s insecurity. From his point of view, no one in the siloviki (Russian security apparatus) is to be trusted. If the state requires a contract reminding people who they are loyal to, it implies that people are not very loyal at all. Experience has shown that people in the Russian forces are more motivated by money than anything else. In Russia, the word “motherland” is synonymous with the leader. The requirement to sign a contract to ensure loyalty to the motherland is a sign of the insecurity and fear Putin is experiencing, as well as the limited trust he has in his security forces.

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Prigozhin’s mutiny, Putin’s mess: how Lukashenko came out looking like a ‘tactical winner’

The Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is seeking credit for stepping in to broker Wagner’s retreat and saving Russia from chaos. FRANCE 24 spoke to Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarusian diplomat, who shed light on what this means for Lukasheko’s relationship with Moscow, his own security and the course of the war in Ukraine.  

On June 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin faced the most serious challenge to his power in his 23-year-long rule. Surprisingly, the challenge came from within his regime, when the famously volatile Wagner group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin seized control of the headquarters of the Russian Southern Military Distrinct in Rostov-on-Don, advanced on Moscow and shot down military aircraft along the way.

As Russia teetered on the brink of civil war, Prigozhin suddenly made a U-turn when his men were just over 200 km from Moscow. A deal was clinched to allow Prigozhin and some of his fighters to go to Belarus.

FRANCE 24: What will the presence of Prigozhin and the Wagner group in Belarus mean for Lukashenko’s regime?

Pavel Slunkin: The main point is that we do not know if the Wagner Group will be in Belarus. We also do not know what their status might be, and what they will be doing there. We do know Lukashenko met with Prigozhin in Minsk after Prigozhin’s plane landed in Belarus on Tuesday.

There are contradictory interests between Yevgeny Prigozhin, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin wants to maintain control over Wagner as an autonomous and independent entity but Lukashenko wants to avoid this because he knows Wagner troops can turn against him, the same way they turned against Putin this weekend.

Yet converging interests exist as well: The Belarusian leader has said his own army could benefit from the experience of Wagner troops. Both Lukashenko and Prigozhin would also agree to register Wagner in Belarus. Before, Wagner was operating as a de facto branch of the Russian army even though Russian law labels private militaries as illegal. 

Finally, Lukashenko can use the Wagner soldiers to defend himself. The Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment is a group of Belarusian opposition volunteers, which have been fighting in Ukraine on Kyiv’s side. They have claimed that once they liberate Ukraine from Russian occupation, they intend to liberate Belarus from Lukashenko’s rule.  

FRANCE 24: Putin has used various means in the past to eliminate his opponents. Is Prigozhin safe in Belarus after the rebellion he led this weekend?  

Pavel Slunkin: Putin was humiliated last weekend when he was in the worst position he ever was during his rule. No matter how many promises Lukashenko gives Prigozhin about his security, his long-term security is not guaranteed.

Russian services felt they could operate on Belarusian territory even before 2020, [after mass demonstrations broke out throughout Belarus and the Kremlin responded with logistical assistance, editor’s note]. If Putin asked Lukashenko for help, I am sure Lukashenko would offer it.

FRANCE 24: What has been the reaction of the Belarusian public and the state media to the deal mediated by Lukashenko?

Pavel Slunkin: It is very hard to know what people think because independent media does not exist in Belarus. Police check people’s mobile phones on the street, at work, at border controls. If they find that people subscribe to media outlets or certain Telegram channels, labelled as “extremist” by the government, they can go to prison.

The website (Mirror) recently held a poll asking people what they think about Prigozhin’s presence in Belarus. The responses showed people are desperate and frustrated about their country being drawn into Russia’s war in Ukraine. They are angry about Russia stationing nuclear warheads in their country and war criminals hosted on national territory.

FRANCE 24: Many experts have said that Belarus is becoming a vassal state of Russia. Could the recent events strengthen Lukashenko’s position as a statesman?

Pavel Slunkin: In all of this, Lukashenko looks like a tactical winner and Putin looks weakened, which is something extraordinary. Prigozhin put everything on the table, he took all possible risks and now he has nowhere to go.

Lukashenko did a service for his boss in Moscow, but by saving Putin, he also saved himself. The Belarusian president showed Western diplomats he could negotiate with Putin, proving he has some autonomy left.

This does not change the fact that Lukashenko remains highly dependent on Russia: 70% of Belarus’s exports are sent to Russia and 90% of Belarusian exports depend on Russian infrastructure. Russia has agreed to sell its gas to Belarus at the lowest prices in the world. Belarus is fundamentally dependent on Russia and this trajectory will continue. No amount of mediation skills can change that.  

FRANCE 24: The relationship between Putin and Lukashenko is well established, but how do you evaluate Prigozhin and Lukashenko’s relationship?

Pavel Slunkin: Lukashenko says he has known Prigozhin personally for 20 years but I would not trust this. Independent journalists, labelled as “extremist” by the Belarusian regime, found that Lukashenko first met Prigozhin in Saint Petersburg in 2002, when Prigozhin was serving state leaders at a dinner.

Lukashenko might try to exaggerate the closeness of his relationship with Prigozhin but the fact is that he did not even have his phone number last weekend during the mutiny. The Belarusians found Prigozhin’s phone number through the FSB [Russian security services, editor’s note].

FRANCE 24: How dangerous for Ukraine and NATO is the presence of Wagner troops in Belarus?

Pavel Slunkin: I do not think the Wagner group will really pose a threat to NATO, and we can imagine Belarus already has troops stationed along the border with Ukraine. If we look at it rationally, Wagner is divided now. One part will join the Russian army, another part will return to civilian life and the last part will continue serving Wagner, but in Belarus; 25,000 soldiers split into three, what does this offer in terms of military might?

If you look back to February 2022, even with the large number of Russian soldiers who tried to capture Kyiv from Belarus, they failed. Ukraine was weak at the time but now they have drones, landmines along the border with Belarus and weapons coming from the West. Wagner would need many more people than the Russian army had a year ago if they were to attack Ukraine.

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Days after the Wagner mutiny, the spectres of ‘Black Saturday’ continue to haunt Russians

The dramatic events that unfolded in Russia over the weekend with an armed column of Wagner private military company marching towards Moscow have sent chills across the world — any radical challenge to Russia’s government of President Vladimir Putin could affect not just the lives of Russians, but also the stability of the world order, already pretty fragile.

Editorial | Rebellion in Russia: on the mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin of the Wagner private military company

The “march of justice”, as Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman and once President Putin’s trusted associate, called his rebellion, was unprecedented in Russia’s modern history but was very short-lived. Still it exposed cracks in the Russian statehood and society. 

While there were different narratives on the origins of Mr. Prigozhin’s move — political ambitions, strive for profits, a bid to challenge the current status quo, or an overreaching hand of the West — the key question yet to have a solid answer is whether the mutiny, and the way it was aborted, undermines the strength or Vladimir Putin or amplifies it. And, more important, whether it was the final act or just the beginning.

“This is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Military mutiny, even unsuccessful, is a harbinger. Key events (revolution, coup, civil war) unfold later, after some time lag. History has no formulas for the future, but such a scenario has some significant tradition (probability),” political scientist Kirill Rogov, founder of the Re: Russia, a discussion platform addressing key issues of Russian politics, economy and society, wrote on his Telegram channel. He pointed out that the mutiny marked a point where those people who took the oath and are ready to “serve the motherland” suddenly discovered a completely different understanding of where the “motherland” is.

Mr. Putin in his address to the nation on Saturday, while the mutiny was unfolding, made it clear: as the motherland is engaged in a “severe struggle for its future” which would decide the “the fate of our nation”, consolidation of all forces is required. He called actions that divide the country’s unity “a betrayal of our people and the comrades who are currently fighting on the front lines”, and compared the current situation with 1917 when, during the First World War, intrigues and disputes “behind the Army and the people turned into the greatest upheaval,” resulting in the collapse of the Army, the disintegration of the state, and a civil war.

Fear of bloodshed

The real-time footage shared by dozens of Russian Telegram channels on Saturday, in which residents are seen shaking hands, hugging and taking photos with Wagner fighters who took control of a regional military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don — a city of over 1 million close to the Ukraine border — must have sent shudders through the power elites.

Servicemen of the Wagner Group military company sit atop of a tank, as local civilians pose for a photo prior to their leave an area at the HQ of the Southern Military District in a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023.
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As Russian political analysts note, many of the issues raised by Mr. Prigozhin — corruption, poor decision making resulting in high casualties on the frontline, or the idea of invading Ukraine itself — resonate with the common people. In an interview released hours before he announced his ‘march of justice’ towards Moscow, Mr. Prigozhin stated Russia had lost tens of thousands of troops, and accused Defence minister Sergei Shoigu of being the mastermind behind the invasion of Ukraine, driven by his personal ambition to enhance his own position.

Mr. Prigozhin also claimed that Mr. Shoigu was supported by oligarchs seeking to exploit Ukrainian resources. Such statements, like many others that Mr. Prigozhin has earlier made, could result in heavy prison terms (from 5 to 15 years) if those were made by ordinary Russians. 

However, a majority of Russians, who recall the events of 1991 (the disintegration of the Soviet Union) with great pain, irrespective of their political views, were rather alarmed at seeing their countrymen embracing Wagner fighters who shot down, as was later confirmed by the President, several helicopters and a military plane of the Russian armed forces, killing at least 13 people. The fear of bloodshed is extremely strong in the nation that has lived through many wars over the past 100 years. 

In the latest comment released by Mr. Prigozhin on Monday evening, he reiterated his claim that the decision to turn the military column around was made “to avoid bloodshed”, and he stressed several times that there was “no death” on the ground during a nearly 24-hour long march. In the same statement, Mr. Prigozhin, however, confirmed that Wagner shot down Russian Air Force aircraft, adding that it was for self-defence.

File picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin seen on monitors as he addressed the nation after Yevgeny Prigozhin called for armed rebellion on June 24, 2023

File picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin seen on monitors as he addressed the nation after Yevgeny Prigozhin called for armed rebellion on June 24, 2023
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As Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who on Tuesday unveiled the details of his mediation between Moscow and Wagner, said Kremlin had amassed some 10,000 troops to repel the Prigozhin-led march, which could have led to clashes and bloodshed. A peaceful solution was the priority, he added

‘Stop the columns’

No one in Russia’s power, business or military circles publicly supported Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion. Hours after Wagner’s move towards Moscow was announced, Deputy Commander of the Russian Joint Forces, General Sergey Surovikin, whom Mr. Prigozhin was considered as being “close to”, and called on Wagner fighters to stop. “Before it’s too late, we need to obey the will and order of the popularly elected President of the Russian Federation, stop the columns, return them to their permanent locations,” he said, urging mercenaries not to “play into the enemy’s hands in these difficult times for our country.”

The deputy head of the GRU (the military intelligence service), Vladimir Alekseev, made a similar appeal, stating that Mr. Prigozhin’s actions as well as demands to replace the military leadership were “a stab in the back of the country and the President”. 

After Mr. Putin’s address on Saturday, Russian officials, including Governors of the regions, members of Parliament and other dignitaries, have published messages in support of the President and calling for unity of society. As Wagner fighters were leaving Rostov on Saturday night, the facade of Rostov city stadium was lit up with the colours of the Russian flag, and a line running: “We are all one nation, and we are fighting against a common external enemy. We believe in the Russian people and our President!”

System crisis

Political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov called June 24 “a moment of the most acute political crisis in the Russian realities of the 21st century”, adding that there was not a single institution that has acted honourably. “Everyone suffered reputational risks. At the end, the general feeling among all the parties is devastation. It is valid for those who saw the developments as a chance for change. And for those who were sincerely convinced that they were acting on behalf of the good and speaking on behalf of the ‘majority’.” 

Sergey Markedonov, a leading researcher at the MGIMO Institute of International Studies, Moscow, noted that “if we don’t continue to improve the quality of public administration in our country”, such tragedies as the events of June 24 will repeat. The ‘Black Saturday’, as he and many other commenters have labelled it, has not created political alternatives for Russia, but made them more visible. “It would be a big mistake to believe that changes in our country will occur in the spectrum of fluctuations between authoritarianism and democracy. The “transit” [of power] can also follow completely different trajectories,” he said. 

Anton Chekhov once defined Russia as a ‘bureaucratic country’, Mr. Markedonov recalled in a Telegram post. “And if that’s the case, then the quality of state governance is a crucial question for us… Therefore, strengthening the state, its de-privatisation (where necessary, especially in the security sector), becomes the most urgent task for the future. Only then does the illusory chance arise that a strong authority, in order to increase its own effectiveness, will demand high-quality independent expertise, a functioning ‘feedback loop,’ and self-purification from numerous ‘clots’”, he added.

Wagner’s future

In his latest address to the nation made on Monday night, Mr. Putin offered three choices to Wagner fighters: sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense, return home or move to neighbouring Belarus.

“The overwhelming majority of the fighters and commanders of the Wagner group are Russian patriots, devoted to their people and country. They proved this with their courage on the battlefield,” Mr. Putin said, thanking Wagner soldiers and commanders who “stopped at the last line” and didn’t allow the “fratricidal bloodshed” to take place.

On Tuesday morning, Russian state-owned news agencies reported, citing the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), that the case of armed mutiny against Mr. Prigozhin was dismissed on June 27. Mr. Prigozhin’s private jet was spotted landing at a military airfield near Minsk, early morning on Tuesday and later in the day, Mr. Lukashenko confirmed that the Wagner chief was in Belarus.

Independent media outlet Verstka, considered a “foreign agent’ by the Russian government, reported that camps were being built for Wagner forces in Belarus’s Osipovichi, Mogilev region (200 km from the border with Ukraine). The camps will accommodate up to 8,000 people (according to various estimates, 5,000-8,000 Wagner forces took part in the mutiny).

However, Mr. Lukashenko dismissed the reports, but added that he would assist with accommodation if necessary. “We don’t build any camps for now. But if they want, we will accommodate them. As far as I can see, they are looking at various territories. Feel free to set up tents. But for now, they are in their own camps in Lugansk,” the Belarus President was quoted as saying by the state Belta news agency.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defence ministry said Wagner PMC’s heavy weaponry will be transferred to the Russian armed forces.

Political analyst Alexey Makarkin, interviewed by Vedomosti newspaper, noted that while the ‘march of justice’ came as a surprise to the “system”, the Russian President’s speech sent an important signal to all its stakeholders. Now, any support for Mr. Prigozhin is categorically unacceptable, and the “former network of Prigozhin sympathizers” should now distance themselves from him. 

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Yevgeny Prigozhin moved to Belarus; Russia won’t press charges for mutiny

Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the private army of prison recruits and other mercenaries who have fought some of the deadliest battles in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, escaped prosecution for his abortive armed rebellion against the Kremlin and arrived Tuesday in Belarus.

The exile of the 62-year-old owner of the Wagner Group was part of a deal that ended the short-lived mutiny in Russia. President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed Prigozhin was in Belarus, and said he and some of his troops were welcome to stay “for some time” at their own expense.

Prigozhin has not been seen since Saturday, when he waved to well-wishers from a vehicle in the southern city of Rostov. He issued a defiant audio statement on Monday. And on Tuesday morning, a private jet believed to belong to him flew from Rostov to an air base southwest of the Belarusian capital of Minsk, according to data from FlightRadar24.

Meanwhile, Moscow said preparations were underway for Wagner’s troops fighting in Ukraine, who numbered 25,000 according to Prigozhin, to hand over their heavy weapons to Russia’s military. Prigozhin had said such moves were being taken ahead of a July 1 deadline for his fighters to sign contracts — which he opposed — with Russia’s military command.

Russian authorities also said Tuesday they have closed a criminal investigation into the uprising and are pressing no armed rebellion charge against Prigozhin or his followers.

Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to set the stage for financial wrongdoing charges against an affiliated organization Prigozhin owns. Putin told a military gathering that Prigozhin’s Concord Group earned 80 billion rubles ($941 million) from a contract to provide the military with food, and that Wagner had received over 86 billion rubles (over $1 billion) in the past year for wages and additional items.

Also read | Rebellion in Russia: on the mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin of the Wagner private military company

“I hope that while doing so they didn’t steal anything, or stole not so much,” Putin said, adding that authorities would look closely at Concord’s contract.

For years, Prigozhin has enjoyed lucrative catering contracts with the Russian government. Police who searched his St. Petersburg office on Saturday said they found 4 billion rubles ($48 million) in trucks outside, according to media reports the Wagner boss confirmed. He said the money was intended to pay soldiers’ families.

Prigozhin and his fighters stopped the revolt on Saturday, less than 24 hours after it began and shortly after Putin spoke on national TV, branding the leaders of the rebellion, whom he did not name, as traitors.

The charge of mounting an armed mutiny could have been punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Prigozhin’s escape from prosecution is i n stark contrast to Moscow’s treatment of its critics, including those staging anti-government protests in Russia, where many opposition figures have been punished with long sentences in notoriously harsh penal colonies.

Lukashenko said some of the Wagner fighters are now in the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine that Russia illegally annexed last September.

The series of stunning events in recent days constitutes the gravest threat so far to Putin’s grip on power amid the 16-month-old war in Ukraine, and he again acknowledged the threat Tuesday in saying the result could have been a civil war.

In addresses this week, Putin has sought to project stability and demonstrate authority.

In a Kremlin ceremony Tuesday, the president walked down the red-carpeted stairs of the 15th century white-stone Palace of Facets to address soldiers and law enforcement officers, thanking them for their actions to avert the rebellion.

In a further show of business-as-usual, Russian media showed Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in his military uniform, greeting Cuba’s visiting defense minister in a pomp-heavy ceremony. Prigozhin has said his goal had been to oust Shoigu and other military brass, not stage a coup against Putin.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for 29 years while relying on Russian subsidies and support, portrayed the uprising as the latest development in the clash between Prigozhin and Shoigu. While the mutiny unfolded, he said, he put Belarus’ armed forces on a combat footing and urged Putin not to be hasty in his response, lest the conflict spiral out of control.

He said he told Prigozhin he would be “squashed like a bug” if he tried to attack Moscow, and warned that the Kremlin would never agree to his demands.

Like Putin, the Belarusian leader portrayed the war in Ukraine as an existential threat, saying, “If Russia collapses, we all will perish under the debris.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov would not disclose details about the Kremlin’s deal with Prigozhin, saying only that Putin had provided “certain guarantees” aimed at avoiding a “worst-case scenario.”

Asked why the rebels were allowed to get as close as about 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) from Moscow without facing serious resistance, National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov told reporters, “We concentrated our forces in one fist closer to Moscow. If we spread them thin, they would have come like a knife through butter.”

Zolotov, a former Putin bodyguard, also said the National Guard lacks battle tanks and other heavy weapons and now would get them.

The mercenaries shot down at least six Russian helicopters and a military communications plane as they advanced on Moscow, killing at least a dozen airmen, according to Russian news reports. The Defense Ministry didn’t release information about casualties, but Putin mentioned them Tuesday and honored them with a moment of silence.

“Pilots, our combat comrades, died while confronting the mutiny,” he said. “They didn’t waver and fulfilled the orders and their military duty with dignity.”

Some Russian war bloggers and patriotic activists have vented outrage that Prigozhin and his troops won’t be punished for killing the airmen.

Prigozhin voiced regret for the deaths in his statement Monday, but said Wagner troops fired because the aircraft were bombing them.

In his televised address Monday night, Putin said rebellion organizers had played into the hands of Ukraine’s government and its allies. He praised the rank-and-file mutineers, however, who “didn’t engage in fratricidal bloodshed and stopped on the brink.”

A Washington-based think tank said that was “likely in an effort to retain” the Wagner fighters in Ukraine, where Moscow needs “trained and effective manpower” as it faces a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The Institute for the Study of War also said the break between Putin and Prigozhin is likely beyond repair, and that providing the Wagner chief and his loyalists with Belarus as an apparent safe haven could be a trap.

Putin has offered Prigozhin’s fighters the choice of either coming under Russian military command, leaving service or going to Belarus.

Lukashenko said there is no reason to fear Wagner’s presence in his country, though in Russia, Wagner-recruited convicts have been suspected of violent crimes. The Wagner troops have “priceless” military knowledge and experience to share with Belarus, he said.

But exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in a 2020 election that was widely seen as fraudulent and triggered mass protests, said Wagner troops will threaten the country and its neighbors.

“Belarusians don’t welcome war criminal Prigozhin,” she told The Associated Press. “If Wagner sets up military bases on our territory, it will pose a new threat to our sovereignty and our neighbors.”

While attention focused on the aftermath of the Russian rebellion, the war in Ukraine continued to take a human toll in what U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink called “terrible scenes from another brutal attack.”

Russian forces struck Kramatorsk and a village nearby in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region with missiles, killing three people, including a child, and injuring more two dozen others, with still others under building rubble, authorities reported.

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Russian President Putin thanks nation for unity after aborted rebellion

Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked the nation on Monday for unity after an armed rebellion staged by a mercenary chief over the weekend was aborted less than 24 hours after it began. Putin also thanked most of the mercenaries for not letting the situation deteriorate into “bloodshed.” He reiterated that all necessary measures have been taken to protect the country and the people from the rebellion.

The leader of the Wagner mercenary group defended his short-lived insurrection in a boastful audio statement Monday as the Kremlin tried to project stability, with authorities releasing a video of Russia’s defense minister reviewing troops in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin said he wasn’t seeking to stage a coup but was acting to prevent the destruction of Wagner, his private military company. “We started our march because of an injustice,” he said in an 11-minute statement, giving no details about where he was or what his plans were.

The feud between the Wagner Group leader and Russia’s military brass has festered throughout the war, erupting into a mutiny over the weekend when mercenaries left Ukraine to seize a military headquarters in a southern Russian city. They rolled seemingly unopposed for hundreds of miles toward Moscow before turning around after less than 24 hours on Saturday.

The Kremlin said it had made a deal for Prigozhin to move to Belarus and receive amnesty, along with his soldiers. There was no confirmation of his whereabouts Monday, although a popular Russian news channel on Telegram reported he was at a hotel in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

Prigozhin taunted Russia’s military on Monday, calling his march a “master class” on how it should have carried out the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. He also mocked the military for failing to protect Russia, pointing out security breaches that allowed Wagner to march 780 kilometers (500 miles) toward Moscow without facing resistance.

The bullish statement made no clearer what would ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces under the deal purportedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Prigozhin said only that Lukashenko “proposed finding solutions for the Wagner private military company to continue its work in a lawful jurisdiction.” That suggested Prigozhin might keep his military force, although it wasn’t immediately clear which jurisdiction he was referring to.

The independent Russian news outlet Vyorstka claimed that construction of a field camp for up to 8,000 Wagner troops was underway in an area of Belarus about 200 kilometers (320 miles) north of the border with Ukraine.

The report couldn’t be independently verified. The Belarusian military monitoring group Belaruski Hajun said Monday on Telegram that it had seen no activity in that district consistent with construction of a facility, and had no indications of Wagner convoys in or moving towards Belarus.

Though the mutiny was brief, it was not bloodless. Russian media reported that several military helicopters and a communications plane were shot down by Wagner forces, killing at least 15. Prigozhin expressed regret for attacking the aircraft but said they were bombing his convoys.

Russian media reported that a criminal case against Prigozhin hasn’t been closed, despite earlier Kremlin statements, and some Russian lawmakers called for his head.

Andrei Gurulev, a retired general and current lawmaker who has had rows with the mercenary leader, said Prigozhin and his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin deserve “a bullet in the head.”

And Nikita Yurefev, a city council member in St. Petersburg, said he filed an official request with Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, asking who would be punished for the rebellion, given that Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed in a Saturday morning address to punish those behind it.

It was unclear what resources Prigozhin can draw on, and how much of his substantial wealth he can access. Police searching his St. Petersburg office amid the rebellion found 4 billion rubles ($48 million) in trucks outside the building, according to Russian media reports confirmed by the Wagner boss. He said the money was intended to pay his soldiers’ families.

Russian media reported that Wagner offices in several Russian cities had reopened on Monday and the company had resumed enlisting recruits.

In a return to at least superficial normality, Moscow’s mayor announced an end to the “counterterrorism regime” imposed on the capital Saturday, when troops and armored vehicles set up checkpoints on the outskirts and authorities tore up roads leading into the city.

The Defense Ministry published video of defense chief Sergei Shoigu in a helicopter and then meeting with officers at a military headquarters in Ukraine. It was unclear when the video was shot. It came as Russian media speculated that Shoigu and other military leaders have lost Putin’s confidence and could be replaced.

Before the uprising, Prigozhin had blasted Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov with expletive-ridden insults for months, accusing them of failing to provide his troops with enough ammunition during the fight for the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.

Prigozhin’s statement appeared to confirm analysts’ view that the revolt was a desperate move to save Wagner from being dismantled after an order that all private military companies sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1.

Prigozhin said most of his fighters refused to come under the Defense Ministry’s command, and the force planned to hand over the military equipment it was using in Ukraine on June 30 after pulling out of Ukraine and gathering in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. He accused the Defense Ministry of attacking Wagner’s camp, prompting them to move sooner.

Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said on Twitter that Prigozhin’s mutiny “wasn’t a bid for power or an attempt to overtake the Kremlin,” but a desperate move amid his escalating rift with the military leadership.

While Prigozhin could get out of the crisis alive, he doesn’t have a political future in Russia under Putin, Stanovaya said.

It was unclear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for the war in Ukraine, where Western officials say Russia’s troops suffer low morale. Wagner’s forces were key to Russia’s only land victory in months, in Bakhmut.

The U.K. Ministry of Defense said Monday that Ukraine had “gained impetus” in its push around Bakhmut, making progress north and south of the town. Ukrainian forces claimed to have retaken Rivnopil, a village in southeast Ukraine that has seen heavy fighting.

U.S. President Joe Biden and leaders of several of Ukraine’s European allies discussed the events in Russia over the weekend, but Western officials have been muted in their public comments.

Biden said Monday that the U.S. and NATO were not involved in the short-lived insurrection. Speaking at the White House, Biden explained that he was cautious about speaking publicly because he wanted to give “Putin no excuse to blame this on the West and blame this on NATO.”

“We made clear that we were not involved, we had nothing to do with it,” he said.

Biden said the U.S. was coordinating with allies to monitor the situation and maintain support for Ukraine.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg concurred Monday that “the events over the weekend are an internal Russian matter.”

And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy had contacted Russian representatives Saturday to stress that the U.S. was not involved in the mutiny.

The events show the war is “cracking Russia’s political system,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

“The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now,” Borrell said. “The monster is acting against his creator.”

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Russia tries to project a sense of order after mercenary revolt but uncertainty still swirls

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu made his first public appearance since a mercenary uprising demanded his ouster, inspecting troops in Ukraine in a video released on June 26 aimed at projecting a sense of order after the country’s most serious political crisis in decades.

But uncertainty still swirled about his fate, that of rebellion leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and his private army, the impact on the war in Ukraine, and even the political future of President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin appeared in a Kremlin video address on Monday, speaking for the first time since the aborted mutiny of a mercenary chief this weekend.

Also Read | With Russia revolt over, mercenaries’ future and direction of Ukraine war remain uncertain

Mr. Putin addressed a youth forum dubbed the “Engineers of the future” where he praised companies for ensuring “the stable operation” of the country’s industry “in the face of severe external challenges”.

A feud between Wagner Group leader Prigozhin and Russia’s military brass that has festered throughout the war erupted into a mutiny that saw the mercenaries leave Ukraine to seize a military headquarters in a southern Russian city and roll seemingly unopposed for hundreds of miles toward Moscow, before turning around after less than 24 hours on Saturday.

The Kremlin said it had made a deal that Mr. Prigozhin will move to Belarus and receive an amnesty, along with his soldiers. There was no confirmation of his whereabouts on Monday, although a popular Russian news channel on Telegram reported he was seen at a hotel in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

Russian media reported a criminal probe against Mr. Prigozhin continued, and some lawmakers called for his head.

In a return to at least superficial normality, Moscow’s mayor announced an end to the “counterterrorism regime” imposed on the capital Saturday, when troops and armored vehicles set up checkpoints on the outskirts and authorities tore up roads leading into the city.

The Defence Ministry video of Mr. Shoigu came as Russian media speculated that he and other military leaders have lost Mr. Putin’s confidence and could be replaced.

Mr. Shoigu was shown in a helicopter and then meeting with officers at a military headquarters in Ukraine. The video was widely broadcast on Russian media, including state-controlled television. It was unclear when it was shot.

General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, also a main target of Mr. Prigozhin’s ire, has not appeared in public.

It was unclear what would ultimately happen to Mr. Prigozhin and his forces under the deal purportedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Though the mutiny was brief, it was not bloodless. Russian media reported that several military helicopters and a military communications plane were shot down by Wagner forces, killing at least 15. The Defence Ministry has not commented. Mr. Prigozhin denied there were any casualties on his side, but media reports indicated the airstrikes hit some Wagner vehicles, and messaging app channels featured images of the damage.

Also Read | Russia’s Prigozhin remains under investigation for mutiny

The U.S. had intelligence that Mr. Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time, suggesting the revolt was planned. That conflicts with Mr. Prigozhin’s claim his rebellion was a response to an attack on his field camps in Ukraine on Friday by the Russian military, which he said killed a large number of his men. The Defence Ministry denied it.

Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency cited unidentified sources in the Prosecutor General’s office as saying the criminal case against Mr. Prigozhin hasn’t been closed, despite earlier Kremlin statements. The Interfax news agency carried a similar report.

Should the case continue, Mr. Prigozhin’s presence in Belarus — a staunch Kremlin ally — would offer little protection against arrest and extradition.

It was unclear what resources Mr. Prigozhin has to draw on, and how much of his substantial wealth he can access. Police searching his St. Petersburg office on the day of the rebellion found 4 billion rubles ($48 million) in trucks outside the building, according to Russian media reports confirmed by the Wagner boss. He claimed the money was intended to pay his soldiers’ families.

Several Russian lawmakers called for tight regulations of private military companies under a new law set to be considered — and some argued that Mr. Prigozhin must be punished.

Also Read | Wagner group mutiny exposes chinks in Putin’s armoured regime

Andrei Gurulev, a retired general and current lawmaker who has rowed with the mercenary leader, said Mr. Prigozhin and his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin, a former military officer who runs Wagner, deserve “a bullet in the head.”

“I firmly believe that traitors in wartime must be executed,” he said.

Mr. Prigozhin appeared nonchalant in some of the last video taken during the rebellion. As a convoy carrying him in an SUV drove out of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don after its brief occupation Saturday, he was asked how he viewed the result of his revolt, according to footage posted on Russian social media.

“It’s normal, we have cheered everyone up,” the mercenary chief responded.

Before the uprising, Mr. Prigozhin had blasted Mr. Shoigu and Mr. Gerasimov with expletive-ridden insults for months, attacking them for failing to provide his troops with enough ammunition during the fight for the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.

Mr. Prigozhin’s rift with the military dates back for years, to Russia’s intervention in Syria, where Wagner forces also were active.

Mr. Putin stood back from the feud and Mr. Shoigu and Mr. Gerasimov remained mum, possibly reflecting uncertainty about the president’s support. Observers said that by failing to end the feud, Mr. Putin had encouraged Mr. Prigozhin to raise the stakes dramatically.

Some analysts saw Mr. Prigozhin’s revolt as a desperate move to save Wagner from being dismantled after an order that all private military companies sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1.

Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said on Twitter that Mr. Prigozhin’s mutiny “wasn’t a bid for power or an attempt to overtake the Kremlin,” but a desperate move amid his escalating rift with Russia’s military leadership.

While Mr. Prigozhin could get out of crisis alive, he doesn’t have a political future in Russia under Mr. Putin, Ms. Stanovaya said.

Alex Younger, former head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency, said it appeared that “neither side was in control” during the rebellion.

He told the BBC that Mr. Prigozhin “didn’t have a plan, he didn’t have enough people” to succeed, while Putin looked indecisive, first vowing to crush the rebels, then striking a deal.

“Everyone comes out of this weaker,” Mr. Younger said.

Russian media and commentators speculated that Mr. Shoigu could be replaced, but that Mr. Putin, who avoids making decisions under pressure, would likely wait before announcing a shakeup.

Putin holds talks with Iran, Qatar leaders

Mr. Putin held calls Monday with the leaders of Iran and Qatar, the Kremlin said, and addressed a forum of youth engineers in a pre-recorded video message that contained no mention of the mutiny.

It was not yet clear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for the war in Ukraine, where Western officials say Russia’s troops suffer low morale. Wagner’s forces were key to Russia’s only land victory in months, in Bakhmut.

The U.K. Ministry of Defence said Monday that Ukraine had “gained impetus” in its push around Bakhmut, making progress north and south of the town.

U.S. President Joe Biden and leaders of several of Ukraine’s European allies discussed events in Russia over the weekend, but Western officials have been muted in their public comments.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told broadcaster RT that U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy contacted Russian representatives Saturday to stress that the U.S. was not involved in the mutiny and considered it an internal Russian matter. There was no immediate confirmation from the U.S., although Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that U.S. officials had “engaged” with Russia to stress the importance of protecting U.S. citizens and interests.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday that “the events over the weekend are an internal Russian matter.” Max Blain, spokesman for U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, said “issues of regime in Russia are for Russia to resolve, first and foremost.”

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, speaking to reporters before a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, said the revolt showed that the war is “cracking Russia’s political system.”

“The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now,” Mr. Borrell said. “The monster is acting against his creator.”

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Russia acknowledges retreat north of Bakhmut as Ukraine claims advances

Moscow acknowledged on Friday that its forces had fallen back north of Ukraine’s battleground city of Bakhmut after a new Ukrainian offensive, in a retreat that the head of Russia’s Wagner private army called a “rout”. The rare acknowledgement came after Ukraine said its forces had made significant advances around the embattled eastern city, which has been the epicentre of fighting with Russia for months. Read our live blog to see how all the day’s events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+2).

This live page is no longer being updated. For more of our coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

8:48pm: South Africa says US ambassador apologised following Russia allegations

South Africa‘s foreign ministry said in a statement on Friday the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, had “admitted that he crossed a line” and “apologised unreservedly” after he said a Russian ship had picked up weapons in South Africa last year, causing a diplomatic uproar on Thursday.


Following the US ambassador’s statements, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said he would appoint an independent inquiry to look into the allegations.  

6:15pm: Moscow acknowledges retreat north of Bakhmut, Wagner boss calls it a ‘rout’

Moscow has acknowledged that its forces have fallen back north of Bakhmut, in the latest report of Ukrainian advances around the battleground city. 

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Ukraine had launched an assault north of Bakhmut with more than 1,000 troops and up to 40 tanks, a scale that if confirmed would amount to the biggest Ukrainian offensive since November.

The Russians had repelled 26 attacks but troops in one area had fallen back to regroup in more favourable positions near the Berkhivka reservoir northwest of Bakhmut, Konashenkov said.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner forces that have led the campaign in the city, said in an audio message: “What Konashenkov described, unfortunately, is called ‘a rout’ and not a regrouping”.

In a separate video message, Prigozhin said the Ukrainians had seized high ground overlooking Bakhmut and opened the main highway leading into the city from the West.

“The loss of the Berkhivka reservoir – the loss of this territory they gave up – that’s 5 sq km, just today,” Prigozhin said.

4:10pm: UK ‘disappointed’ at Eurovision ban on Zelensky message

The UK government has hit out at European broadcasters for banning a message by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at this weekend’s Eurovision final, for fear of politicising the event.

The English city of Liverpool is hosting Saturday’s musical extravaganza on behalf of last year’s winner, Ukraine, and has decked out its streets in yellow and blue.

But the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) said “strict rules” prevented it from granting the Ukrainian leader’s request to speak by video, arguing the contest is “non-political”.

“The prime minister believes it would be fitting for President Zelensky to address the event, and we’re disappointed by the decision from the European Broadcasting Union,” Rishi Sunak‘s spokesman said. “The values and freedoms that President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine are fighting for are not political, they’re fundamental.”

3:05pm: Russian police launch anti-drone unit following Kremlin incident

Police in the Russian city of St. Petersburg have created a new anti-drone unit to detect unmanned aerial vehicles following a purported drone attack on the Kremlin earlier this month.

The unit launched on May 9 during the annual World War Two Victory Day celebrations on St. Petersburg’s Palace Square, the city’s interior ministry has said.

Its purpose is to “ensure the protection of public order” during large public events, Roman Uvarov, the department’s head, said in a video message.

The unit will include officers armed with sniper rifles and carbines, groups trained to neutralise unmanned aerial vehicles, and mobile patrols to detain those suspected of operating drones.

1:25pm: Russia staves off Ukrainian advances along 95 km front near Bakhmut

Russia said Friday it had repelled Ukrainian attacks along a 95-kilometre (60 mile) stretch of front near the symbolic city of Bakhmut, as an anticipated Ukrainian offensive looms.

“In the tactical direction of Soledar, the enemy yesterday carried out offensive operations along the entire line of contact, which is more than 95 kilometres long,” the defence ministry said, adding that Ukraine had deployed “more than 1,000 military personnel and up to 40 tanks”.

“All the attacks of the units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine have been repelled,” the defence ministry added. 

1:07pm: Zelensky to meet Italian president in Rome on Saturday

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected in Rome on Saturday for talks with his Italian counterpart, an official told AFP Friday, with a meeting with Pope Francis also possible.

“We confirm that this meeting will take place tomorrow,” a spokesman for Italian President Sergio Mattarella said when asked about reports of a meeting with Zelensky.

It would be the first visit by Zelensky to EU and NATO member Italy since Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

11:58am: Black Sea grain deal renewal issue remains unresolved, Kremlin says

The Kremlin said on Friday that there was nothing new to report after talks on possible renewal of the Black Sea grain deal in Istanbul and that a potential conversation between the leaders of Turkey and Russia would not help clinch an agreement.

In a call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that only full implementation of the deal would facilitate its renewal.

Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said earlier on Friday that parties to the Black Sea grain pact were nearing a deal to extend it.

10:52am: Ukraine’s Zelensky banned from adressing Eurovision contest

This weekend’s Eurovision Song Contest will have Ukrainian flags, Ukrainian musicians and Ukrainian fans  but not the country’s wartime leader.

Organisers rejected a request from President Volodymyr Zelensky to make a video address to the final of the pan-continental music competition on Saturday. He was expected to urge the world continue its support for Ukraine’s fight to repel Russian invasion.

The European Broadcasting Union, which runs Eurovision, said that letting Zelensky participate would breach “the nonpolitical nature of the event”.

9:45am: China to send special envoy to Ukraine, Russia

China will send a special envoy to Ukraine, Russia and other European nations from Monday, Beijing said on Friday, to discuss a “political settlement” to the war in Ukraine.

“From May 15, Ambassador Li Hui, special representative of the Chinese government for Eurasian Affairs, will visit Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany and Russia to communicate with all parties on the political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular press conference.

9:28am: Ukraine claims it has advanced two kilometres in Bakhmut

Ukraine said Friday that its forces had made significant advances around the embattled city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region, which has been the epicentre of fighting with Russia for months.

“The enemy has suffered great losses of manpower. Our defence forces advanced two kilometres (around one mile) near Bakhmut. We did not lose a single position in Bakhmut this week,” Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said in a statement on social media.

1:30am: Russia denies reports of Ukrainian breakthroughs along front lines

Russia’s defence ministry on Thursday denied reports that Ukrainian forces had broken through in various places along the front lines and said the military situation was under control.

Moscow reacted after Russian military bloggers, writing on the Telegram messaging app, reported what they said were Ukrainian advances north and south of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, with some suggesting a long-awaited counteroffensive by pro-Kyiv forces had started.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had earlier said the offensive had yet to start.

“Statements circulated by individual Telegram channels about ‘defence breakthroughs’ that took place in different areas along the line of military contact do not correspond to reality,” the Russian defence ministry said in a Telegram post.

“The overall situation in the area of the special military operation is under control,” it said in a statement, using the Kremlin’s description of the war in Ukraine.

The fact the Russian ministry felt obliged to release the statement reflects what Moscow acknowledges is a “very difficult” military operation.

  • Key developments from Thursday, May 12:

Britain on Thursday became the first country to begin supplying Ukraine with long-range cruise missiles, which will allow Kyiv’s forces to hit Russian troops and supply dumps deep behind the front lines.

Meanwhile Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country’s military needed more time to prepare an anticipated counteroffensive aimed at opening a new chapter in the war.

Officials from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations on Thursday discussed recent UN proposals on a deal allowing the safe Black Sea export of Ukraine grain, which Moscow has threatened to quit on May 18 over obstacles to its own grain and fertiliser exports.

Read yesterday’s live blog to see how the day’s events unfolded


© France Médias Monde graphic studio

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)

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