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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

LUKASHENKA AND THE PRIGOZHIN MUTINY


[This was written on 2 July and updated on 6 July. It does not take account of recent information, such as an intriguing claim over the weekend that German intelligence eavesdropped on the whole conversation between Lukashenka and Prigozhin, or the news – which emerged this morning – that Putin held a three-hour-long meeting with Prigozhin in the Kremlin a few days after the mutiny.]



The Prigozhin mutiny drastically undermined Vladimir Putin’s authority and its outcome severely dented the ambitions of the mutiny’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. But one man unexpectedly came out of last month’s spectacle rather well: Belarus’s dictator, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.


No one, it seems, imagined that Lukashenka might play a part in resolving the crisis. It certainly garnered attention for Belarus, with substantial articles in major newspapers. (Examples here, here, here, here, here, here or here.) Belarus seldom receives so much attention.


And yet. Lukashenka’s precise role is opaque since so few details are known publicly. So unexpected was his entry onto the stage that many commentators have portrayed him as no more than a ‘messenger’ of an offer to Prigozhin from the Kremlin. This response has not been confined to western commentators; some Russian media have keenly downplayed Lukashenka’s involvement. It was also the initial soundbite from Belarusian opposition. 'He was just a messenger for Putin... not a broker,' said Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya.


While it would be wrong to exaggerate Lukashenka’s influence, it would be equally mistaken to dismiss it. Lukashenka has a keen political instinct and denying this only leads to policymaking that underestimates his resilience and capacity to adapt to circumstances. In short, it leads to ineffective policymaking.


Belarus’s cameo in the Prigozhin mutiny


We know that Lukashenka and Putin spoke on the Saturday morning, as Prigozhin’s fighters advanced towards Moscow, and that Lukashenka then held meetings with his security and military chiefs. Belarus’s Security Council soon after issued a statement indicating the regime’s angle on the situation, iterating its support for Russia and stating that any unrest would be ‘a gift’ to the west.


Come evening Lukashenka’s press office was proclaiming that Prigozhin had agreed to halt his march on Moscow – because of Lukashenka’s mediation. When we next heard from Prigozhin, more than a day later, he acknowledged Lukashenka’s contribution. Part of the Russian media, too, conveyed its gratitude to their Belarusian neighbours. Prigozhin’s mutiny may or may not have been an attempted coup, but events proved quite the PR coup for Lukashenka.


It raises many questions, however. For one, some analysts point out, Belarus has limited diplomatic resources and little obvious political capital to undertake a major role in brokering peace. The mutiny was not mere theatre. The Kremlin perceived Prigozhin’s march to be a genuine threat: the diggers were sent out to tear up the roads into Moscow to slow the advance; at least a dozen Russian airmen died as the result of their helicopters being shot down by the mutineers. It seems unlikely that a word from Lukashenka could be sufficient to nip the rebellion in the bud.


The standard response among many analysts is that Putin needed a ‘messenger’ because he could not talk directly to Prigozhin. In his address to the nation on the Saturday morning, Putin had called Priogozhin a ‘traitor’ and promised to punish the mutineers. It is therefore claimed that Putin would have looked weak in striking a deal with Prigozhin after his morning comments. So, it is said, he brought in a shill in the shape of Lukashenka.


Then there’s the question of why Prigozhin would back down. The Telegraph claimed that Russia’s FSB threatened to kill family members of Wagner commanders. The lack of any corroboration of the paper’s source is problematic, to say the least, but I grant that it is a plausible scenario.[1] It is also consistent with Lukashenka being no more than the messenger.


Problems with the standard account


I am unconvinced by the version just described. First of all, I cannot see why Putin comes off better for using Lukashenka as an intermediary; it only left him humiliated and Lukashenka taking the glory. Surely Putin would look better having himself persuaded Prigozhin to back down? Regardless of what he had said in his national address, Putin would be able to say he averted massive bloodshed (in his address that morning he had invoked the threat of civil war by referring to 1917) and take some credit by appearing ‘stronger’ than his rival; he would have won the game of ‘chicken’ with Prigozhin. I fail to see why what actually transpired is any less humiliating for Putin than talking to Prigozhin would have been.


Secondly, what Priogozhin was offered is also problematic, notwithstanding the Telegraph claims. Prigozhin had undertaken a bold mutiny, one that probably was well-planned even if one is sceptical – and I am – about US intelligence claims after the event that they knew what he was planning. He was making headway, too, and then he abandoned his mutiny at the drop of a hat. He agreed not merely to stop, but to remove himself to Belarus (and de facto from involvement in the Ukraine war, with Wagner units there disbanded). He was promised that he would not be prosecuted, but there was nothing to suggest that the named targets of his months-long ire – Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov – would lose their jobs. It makes little sense. My initial thought was that Prigozhin must have been deceived about what he was receiving from the deal.


We are told that the terms of the deal brokered will allow Wagner fighters to either sign contracts with the Russian army, lay down their arms and return to their families, or go to Belarus. A camp is being prepared in southern Belarus which journalists think might be to house Wagner mercenaries, although, in a 6 July press conference, Lukashenka cast doubt on the idea Wagner will use that camp at all. He also said that Prigozhin was in Russia and not Belarus, casting doubt as to whether Prigozhin will even relocate to Belarus.


Then, thirdly, there’s the assertion that Belarus lacks the resources necessary. It is true that Belarus has very limited resources of its own. This is not the place to explain Belarus’s heavy political and economic dependence on Russia. Those are undeniable and have only grown since the Belarus’s rigged election and stalled revolution in 2020, which saw hundreds of thousands of Belarusians take to the streets only to meet a fierce crackdown that continues to this day. Lukashenka survived those events owing to Russian support, including a $1.5bn loan. But I’m not convinced resources, diplomatic or otherwise, were necessary here.


Hence my belief that some in the media has been too quick to dismiss Lukashenka’s role. Uncomfortable as it may be for commentators, they sometimes need to recognise that no one retains power for nearly three decades without some political nous – even if it’s often called on for doing nasty things, and even if it has not benefitted Belarusians as a different politics might have.


All dictators, military juntas and absolutist monarchs only stay in power by relying on their skill for manipulating situations to their advantage.


Lukashenka’s ‘animal instinct’


Lukashenka knows his Macchiavelli – that it is far safer to be feared than loved (if you cannot be both). In Lukashenka’s own telling, he struck fear into Prigozhin by telling him of the wrath that would bear down on him if he did not stop his march. There was, according to Lukashenka, something of a slanging match between him and Prigozhin as the Belarusian dictator compelled Prigozhin to see sense. Russian troops 'will crush you like a bug,' Lukashenka told Progozhin.


It’s glib to dismiss Lukashenka’s diplomacy as mere bluff and bluster. I think the essence of his political behaviour was captured well in a remark made by Nigel Gould-Davis, a former British ambassador to Belarus. In an on-record interview some years ago, Gould-Davis told me that he thought Lukashenka ‘has an almost animal instinct for the way power works.’ That phrase has stayed with me in the years since.


His political acumen is best seen in domestic politics.[2] He has a keen sense of when to rotate staff so as to prevent any alliances forming against him, or his ability to offer a sop to opponents here and there (inevitably overshadowed by the regime’s brutality and repression). In 2016, when he sensed that the influence of a key economic liberal within the political system was growing too large, Lukashenka appointed the rising political figure as ambassador to China, well out of the fray.


Lukashenka seems to have an instinct for how much influence others can wield before they become a threat to him or the political system. A corollary of that is sensing when others’ grip on power is vulnerable and that has served him well in international affairs. Lukashenka sees and seizes such opportunities.[3] I would suggest that Lukashenka sensed both Putin and Prigozhin were vulnerable: Putin because someone was challenging his rule, and Prigozhin because the key players - the ones any ruler needs on side to wield power - were not defecting to his side contrary, presumably, to his expectations. Whatever Lukashenka said, or promised, might therefore -- however incredible it may seem -- have succeeded in ending the mutiny.


Lukashenka almost certainly understands that his own grip on power is at risk if Russia collapses into a period of civil conflict. He likely saw, too, an opportunity to burnish his credentials internationally as Prigozhin mutineed.


In international politics, Lukashenka has repeatedly frustrated both friends and foes. His knack of reneging on agreements when Russian attention is elsewhere has caused repeated frictions with his ally, as even Russian interlocutors have struggled to have his full measure. Meanwhile, he learnt the trick of releasing political prisoners in return for sanctions relief from the EU; it worked, briefly, and could do so again in the future (although not until there has been a wholescale change of guard in Brussels). In short, no one trusts him --- and yet he is acknowledged to have a skill for playing different sides off against one another.


The foreign ministry may have been the driver of Belarus’s positioning on Ukraine after 2014, but Lukashenka understood the opportunity offered for keeping a little distance from Russia while going a little way to appeasing EU critics. The Minsk Agreements may have amounted to little more than Belarus providing a venue, yet they carry the name of the Belarusian capital and that was symbolically important. Even after Russia’s large-scale invasion last February, partly from Belarusian territory, Lukashenka saw an opportunity in offering to host the first peace talks. It required some effrontery, given that Belarus had provided a staging ground for the invasion and ongoing missile assaults.


A double-edged sword for the dictator


A short-term PR coup is one thing and Lukashenka turned raconteur crowed about it. But such conceit is the mark of an inferior man. In the long run the presence of Wagner Group in Belarus brings hazards to Lukashenka both personally and politically.


It is a political risk because it increases Russia’s military footprint inside Belarus, and therefore Russia’s grip on the country. Wagner Group fighters may not be signed up Russian soldiers, but they have been an instrument of Russian foreign policy for many years. While there are questions as to the role Wagner Group will occupy in the future in Russian foreign policy, it is only in Ukraine that its function will formally end.


Lukashenka tried to spin their presence as an opportunity. He says their military experience can be helpful to Belarus, that the mercenaries’ experience with weapons systems will be invaluable for Belarus’s own military. These are not very persuasive claims, however. Many of the Wagner fighters were deployed to Ukraine without prior experience and, while battlefield experience might count for a lot, to suggest Wagner’s fighter can offer much to a professional army seems dubious.


Moreover, any truce brokered so swiftly between Putin and Prigozhin cannot have resolved the core issues, which are not embodied in Prigozhin alone (he got as far as he did because there are others who share his grievances). The truce, therefore, contains the seeds of future discord.


Prigozhin in Belarus presents a hazard for Lukashenka personally, too. He and Lukashenka are both hot-headed figures and it is hard to think they wouldn’t row sooner rather than later. And in this situation why should Lukashenka trust Prigozhin, who has already turned on his previous patron Putin?


On 6 July, pointing to the size of the army at his command, Lukashenka asked why he should fear Prigozhin. But one only has to think how easily Prigozhin took control of the military headquarters in Rostov to doubt Lukashenka’s confidence. One only has to recall, as well, Machiavelli: ‘Mercenaries are at once useless and dangerous… For such troops are disunited, ambitious, insubordinate, treacherous.’



Explanatory notes:

1. There have been precedents of such threats succeeding in melting soldiers' resolve. See, for example, Thomas Schelling's recounting of the siege of Vera Cruz, during the Mexico-American war, in his book Arms and Influence (p.10) – fighters do yield when their families are at risk.


2. It was apparent from the beginning. Few people had paid much attention to Lukashenka in the early 1990s, and yet he won a landslide in Belarus’s only undisputed presidential election. His election came on the back of his handling of an investigation into corruption. This made his very popular and he capitalised on the situation. His report, when presented to the parliamentary chamber (the Supreme Soviet as it still was), disclosed no new findings, much to the relief of many deputies who now believed they could trust the former farm manager. And Lukashenka’s dramatic parliamentary presentation won over the public too: it was broadcast live, and Lukashenka flapped a sheaf of papers before him, talking up their significance (‘the most terrible things’), and showing citizens he was on their side against a corrupt elite; many have since claimed he was waving before him blank sheets of paper. The point is that Lukashenka's political instinct was on show: he knew what his different audiences, both those in the chamber and these watching from their homes, wanted to hear.


3. Unfortunately, the Belarusian opposition has lacked this ability to seize opportunities, admittedly largely because Lukashenka has done his utmost to neuter their participation and experience in political life. The opposition's response to the Prigozhin mutiny was weakly coordinated. The Kalinousky Regiment, comprising Belarusian volunteers fighting in Ukraine, made an appeal but it amounted to little, in reach or in substance. It was rightly cautious, but it really needed Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s office to amplify the message. That did not happen because of her caution in endorsing the more militant opposition to Lukashenka (although she and her office did appeal to the Belarusian military). She, meanwhile, ran ahead of events by renouncing international treaties signed by Lukashenka. Tsikhanouskaya said the mutiny represented ‘the best chance to expel the Russian military from our country.’ Unfortunately, with Prigozhin prospectively moving his operations to Belarus, the opposite result may obtain.

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