Vladimir V. Putin is known for his tight control over the news media in Russia. His one-time colleague, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner military group, is himself the owner of a conservative media outlet and a flamboyant showman on social media.
But it was an unexpected figure who emerged with a public relations victory in the wake of Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion: the longtime dictator of Belarus, a neighboring country that is firmly in Moscow’s orbit.
The Belarusian leader, Alexander G. Lukashenko, is largely seen as the Kremlin’s submissive satrap. But on Sunday, he took credit for brokering a deal between Mr Putin and Mr Prigozhin, averting a scenario the Russian leader likened to a civil war after the 1917 revolution.
Now Mr Lukashenko, an international pariah, is trying to use the PR victory to polish his credentials as a reliable politician, mediator – and above all, Mr Putin’s loyal ally.
Late on Saturday, as fears grew of a possible confrontation between Wagner troops, which were within 125 miles of Moscow, and Russian troops, Mr. Lukashenko’s press service issued an announcement: had found an acceptable alternative to resolve the situation.”
Soon after, Mr. Prigozhin announced that a squadron of his fighters, which had been driven 570 miles from southern Russia, was turning around and going home.
As part of the deal, a Kremlin spokesman said, the criminal case opened against Mr Prigozhin for organizing an armed insurgency would be dropped, the Wagner troops would not face charges and Mr Prigozhin would leave Russia for Belarus. His whereabouts were not known on Sunday.
What, if any, promises were made on the part of the Kremlin, Wagner, or Mr. Lukashenko is unclear. But Mr Lukashenko’s state-controlled media immediately switched into high gear to portray his efforts to defuse the conflict as evidence of statesmanship.
State news agency, Belta, reported that on Saturday morning – when Mr Putin faced “the most serious phase of the situation in Russia” – he phoned his Belarusian counterpart in Minsk.
“Mr. Putin was skeptical about the possibility of talks and doubted whether Yevgeny Prigozhin would pick up the phone, as he had not spoken to anyone at the time,” Vadim Gigin, a spokesman for the Belarusian government, told pro-Kremlin media on Sunday. in an interview that was covered extensively Belta.
But Mr. Putin agreed to mediate, and when “the president of Belarus called, Yevgeny Prigozhin immediately picked up the phone,” said Mr. Gigin, who was once banned by the European Union “For supporting and justifying repression against the democratic opposition and civil society.”
Talks between Mr Lukashenko and Mr Prigozhin were “very difficult”, said Mr Gigin, who this month became director of the National Library of Belarus. “He immediately said such obscene things that any mother would cry. The conversation was tough, and as I was told, manly.”
Although other possible explanations have been put forward for why Mr. Prigozhin abandoned his “march for justice” for Moscow, some give Mr. Lukashenko minimal credit, but the Belarusian media machine continues to see him as a power broker. Bhumika is rocking the role, which is a rare occurrence. A change of role at a time when the dictator has become increasingly dependent on Russia.
“Putin lost because he showed how weak his system is, that he can be challenged so easily,” said Pavel Slankin, a former Belarusian diplomat and analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Prigozin challenged, he attacked, he was very courageous, and then he retreated like a loser. Only Lukashenko won the points – first in the eyes of Putin, in the eyes of the international community as a mediator or negotiator, and as a potential guarantor of the deal.
Mr Lukashenko managed to hold on to power for 29 years, but it came at a cost. He has allowed Belarus to increasingly become a vassal state of Russia, especially after gaining Moscow’s support in 2020, when he violently crushed a democracy movement challenging his claim that he won an overwhelming majority. had won
Dependent on Moscow not only for political support but also for economic viability, Belarus has urged Putin to use it as the staging ground for his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and as a storage site for Russian strategic nuclear weapons. permitted to.
Details have also emerged that Belarus has participated in Russia’s practice of pulling children out of Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine and bringing them to so-called summer camps. The International Criminal Court has issued warrants for Mr Putin and his children’s rights commissioner, and Ukrainian prosecutors are reviewing evidence that children have been brought to three camps in Belarus, including at least one run by a state-owned company. is related to.
Opposition leaders believe Mr Putin’s ambitions are not limited to Ukrainian territory. Eventually, they predict, he will try to consolidate his control over Belarus.
With his alleged meddling in the Wagner crisis, Mr Lukashenko can hope to reclaim his increasingly eroding sovereignty, said Dmitry Avosha, founder of the Belarusian website Tribuna, and allay Belarusian fears of being swallowed up by its larger neighbour. can stop.
“Lukashenko directly did Putin a favor and helped him solve the occupation problem,” he said.
It is not the first time that Mr. Lukashenko has also tried to claim the post of mediator.
It did so in 2014 and 2015, following the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, when it launched a covert offensive in the eastern Donbass region. He tried again soon after for a full-scale invasion, drawing delegations from Moscow and Kiev to the southeastern city of Gomel, but talks quickly broke down.
Many observers are now questioning whether Mr. Prigozhin will be safe from the threat of kidnapping or assassination in Belarus, given that Mr. Putin has openly expressed anger at him.
Even before 2020, when Lukashenko became even more Putin’s puppet, Russian special services occasionally entered Belarus’ territory to apprehend his enemies, said Mr. Slunkin, the European Council analyst. “And now, they will do what they want.”
No matter how much the balance of power between Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Putin has shifted, the two men still need each other to stay in power.
“They are two Siamese twins,” said Pavel Latushka, a former Belarusian diplomat and minister who is now in exile. “They cannot live without each other. it’s one body, two heads, The fall of one means the political death of the other.