The Exile Of Prigozhin And His Fighters To A Potemkin Village In Belarus – OpEd


Global commentary and analyses this week have been dominated by media reports on the tumultuous events that took place in Russia this past weekend. While what exactly took place still remains unclear – Was it a mutiny? An insurrection? An attempt to start a civil war? – this has not stopped commentators from engaging in speculation about what it means for President Putin’s regime and, by extension, the conflict in Ukraine.

Although a clear consensus has yet to emerge, the commonly held view is that this event will weaken Mr. Putin’s grip on power with some commentators even going so far as to opine that this marks the beginning of the end of his rule. Flowing from this assessment, commentators have been keen to offer their perspective on how this failed challenge to his leadership would affect Russia’s battlefield fortunes and boost Ukraine’s war effort.

Several aspects of this episode, however, and actions taken by actors who are central to this piece in the wake thereof seem to be at odds with this narrative. The first concerns the reason Mr. Prigozhin initially gave for calling off his blink-and-you-miss-it self-proclaimed ‘March for Justice’ and agreeing to accept Mr. Lukashenko’s offer of exile. The emphatic desire he expressed to ‘avoid the spilling of Russian blood’ and offered by way of explanation as to why he halted his advance on Moscow seems out of character for the head of a mercenary group (or, more correctly, private military contractor) whose raison d’être is the spilling of blood.

Likewise, the explicit warnings he issued to outsiders not to attempt to take advantage of the chaos caused by his actions are not the sort of utterances one would typically expect to hear from a leader who supposedly sought to topple the top brass of his paymaster’s military let alone one who is bent on fomenting an insurrection in his country. Just as curiously, Belarussian dictator Lukashenko was swift to extend a generous offer of exile to Mr. Prigozhin and his men.

Extending such a magnanimous gesture to a warlord gone rogue who is in command of a well-armed group of men whose actions risk harming the war efforts of a neighbouring state that happens to be his country’s closest and only ally is not the sort of behaviour one would expect of an autocrat, more so one who appears unwilling to brook any opposition as the brutal suppression of pro-democracy activists in his country attests and when the exiles to whom he extended the offer of exile possess the means to topple his government should they attempt to.

Yet, despite the numerous unanswered questions about Mr. Prigozhin’s intentions or motivation, there is one thing that is certain; President Putin stands to benefit in both political and military terms as a result of this episode. Domestically, the existence of traitors in the midst who wish to overthrow the government and sabotage their country’s struggle with enemies who are bent on destroying their homeland offers President Putin convenient justification to clamp down on domestic opposition to his rule at a time when citizens are starting to grow weary of the ‘special military operation’ the government had sold as an act of tough love necessary to discipline an errant baby brother that is showing signs of becoming a fratricidal bloodbath without end. Crucially, Mr. Prigozhin’s betrayal also gives President Putin an excuse to purge doubters among his inner circle.

Furthermore, having a wildcard who is even now careful not to criticize President Putin personally and has always denied harbouring the intention to overthrow the government encamped just across the border is likely to dissuade would-be rivals within this circle from acting on any thoughts of seizing power they might secretly entertain. Consequently, President Putin will be able to consolidate his grip on power.

Turning to the near abroad, Mr. Prigozhin’s presence in Belarus is also likely to serve Russian interests there well. On the one hand, posting a contingent of battle-hardened outsiders who show little regard for civilian lives to that country could serve to prop up the regime of Belarussian strongman and staunch Putin ally President Lukashenko. On the other, they could just as easily serve to keep this president in line should his support for Russia start to waiver or his government begin to cozy up to the West, in much the same way former Ukrainian President Yushchenko’s administration did.

Either way, Mr. Prigozhin’s presence there would stabilize a regime which quietly entered into an agreement with Russia at the beginning of this month (June 2023) which allows the latter to site tactical nuclear weapons on its territory. The added insurance provided by the Wagner Group’s exile in Belarus comes none too soon as this agreement is due to take effect in early July 2023.

On the battlefield, the Wagner Group’s exit from an active theatre of operation might not seriously hamper Russia’s war effort considering the phase into which the war is currently entering. The launch of Ukraine’s highly anticipated spring offensive means that Russia will have to change tactics and fight a defensive war. Should the Russian army actually use Wagner units to do the dying when conducting offensive campaigns to seize territory as military observers who are far more knowledgeable about such matters than this author allege, their removal from the front is unlikely to cause a major change in Russian war strategy or operations.

Perhaps more crucial from a military standpoint, having Mr. Prigozhin, a mercenary leader portrayed as having gone rogue by turning against his benefactor who commands the loyalty of seasoned fighters who rose to prominence if not acclaim when conducting offensive operations in Syria and Ukraine, ensconced in Belarus is likely to confer some tactical advantages on Russia vis-a-vis NATO. Arguably, having such fighters positioned farther to the west is akin to holding a dagger to NATO’s throat as it puts newer NATO members like Poland and the Baltic states directly on the frontline thus forcing them to reinforce their borders and tone down the bellicose anti-Russian rhetoric which these leaders have been attempting to outdo each other in. The net result is that military aid which they would otherwise have been able to send to Ukraine would be suspended and their public support for this country would become muted. Needless to add no doubt, but diverting military aid away from Ukraine and curtaining political attacks on Russia would relieve pressure on Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.

The fallout resulting from this past weekend’s antics also bestows diplomatic advantages on Mr. Putin. In the immediate term, Mr. Prigozhin’s traitorous actions give President Putin reasonable grounds on which to forgo attending the upcoming BRICS summit in South Africa, a country which is a signatory to the Rome Statute and is obliged under this agreement to execute the warrant of arrest issued against Mr. Putin by the International Criminal Court and arrest him as soon as he lands there. Should President Putin elect to remain in Russia to focus on quelling domestic dissent, he eliminates the risk, however remote, of South Africa discharging its obligations without losing face. It also extricates South Africa from the diplomatic quandary which his attendance risks embroiling that country in given its obligations to the ICC. Not testing South Africa’s resolve to uphold its obligations to the ICC or its commitment to maintaining good relations with Russia would earn South Africa’s gratitude and enable Russia to sow a great deal of goodwill with this BRICS ally which is being assailed by numerous domestic and international threats because of its steadfast relations with that country. These sentiments are likely to serve the Russians well when it comes to their nuclear dealings with South Africa. Clinching a nuclear deal with South Africa is, in turn, likely to represent a significant foreign policy achievement since Russia has made energy diplomacy a lynchpin of its foreign policy agenda and the securing of nuclear power partnerships a key part of its strategy to garner influence in Africa.

In conclusion, after weighing up the opportunities presented by the events that took place last weekend and the potential benefits it bestows it is difficult to buy into current predictions doing the rounds that Mr. Putin is ‘finished’ or that ‘his time is up’, even after accounting for the reputational damage which President Putin will probably incur as a consequence thereof. Indeed, the sceptic could be forgiven for thinking that Mr. Prigozhin’s exile was a strategic redeployment and that the Wagner Group’s maneuvers this past weekend were nothing but an elaborate ruse of which Minister Potemkin himself would be proud.

And even if Mr. Prigozhin did act off-script, the benefits of keeping him alive in Belarus are such that they offer at the very least sufficient reason for Mr. Putin to stay the order to have him ‘disappear’, an order many pundits anticipate will be soon in coming. Regardless which hypothesis holds true, the events of this past weekend could portend a hardening of attitudes within Russia. Far from a loss of power for President Putin, the outcome of this shift will be the escalation and intensification of the Ukrainian conflict and the destruction of many villages there besides.

Gerard Boyce

Gerard Boyce is an economist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

One thought on “The Exile Of Prigozhin And His Fighters To A Potemkin Village In Belarus – OpEd

  • July 2, 2023 at 11:29 pm

    This is the first reasonable analysis I read about the Wagner episode. I was educated in Russia and have at least some understanding of its behavior. The western hysteria is afflicting too many people previously thought to be wise.


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