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Russian mutiny leader Prigozhin in Belarus, country’s president says

Russia: criminal investigation closed without charges against Wagner leader or his troops
In this handout photo taken from video released by Prigozhin Press Service, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, records his video addresses in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023. (Prigozhin Press Service via AP)

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed on Tuesday that Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the mercenary group Wagner, has arrived in Belarus after a short-lived armed mutiny in Russia.

Prigozhin’s exile in Belarus had been announced by the Kremlin announced earlier as part of the deal that ended the rebellion.

Lukashenko on Tuesday said Prigozhin has moved to Belarus and he and some of his troops would be welcome to stay in Belarus “for some time” at their own expense.

Russian authorities said Tuesday they have closed a criminal investigation into the aborted armed rebellion led by the mercenary chief and are pressing no charges against him or his troops.

The Federal Security Service, or FSB, said its investigation found that those involved in the mutiny, which lasted less than 24 hours after Prigozhin declared it Friday, “ceased activities directed at committing the crime,” so the case would not be pursued.

It was the latest twist in a series of stunning events that have brought the gravest threat so far to President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power amid the 16-month-old war in Ukraine.

Over the weekend, the Kremlin pledged not to prosecute Prigozhin and his fighters after he stopped the revolt on Saturday, even though Putin had branded them as traitors and authorities rushed to fortify Moscow’s defenses as the mutineers approached the capital.

The charge of mounting an armed mutiny is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Prigozhin escaping prosecution poses a stark contrast to how the Kremlin has treated those staging anti-government protests in Russia, where many opposition figures have gotten long sentences in notoriously harsh penal colonies.

The whereabouts of Prigozhin remained a mystery Tuesday. The Kremlin has said he would be exiled to neighboring Belarus, but neither he nor the Belarusian authorities have confirmed that.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had no information on the 62-year-old head of the Wagner private military contractor.

An independent Belarusian military monitoring project Belaruski Hajun said a business jet that Prigozhin reportedly uses landed near Minsk on Tuesday morning. The media team for Prigozhin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close Putin ally who brokered a deal with Prigozhin to stop the uprising, didn’t immediately address Prigozhin’s fate in a speech Tuesday.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for 29 years, relentlessly stifling dissent and relying on Russian subsidies and political support, portrayed the uprising as the latest development in a clash between Prigozhin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Their long-simmering personal feud has at times boiled over, and Prigozhin has said the revolt aimed to unseat Shoigu, not Putin.

Lukashenko framed the insurrection as a significant menace, saying he put Belarus’ armed forces on a combat footing as the mutiny unfolded.

Lukashenko said he had urged Putin not to be hasty in his response, adding that a conflict with Wagner could have spiraled out of control.

Like Putin, Lukashenko couched the Ukraine war in terms of an existential threat to Russia, saying: “If Russia collapses, we all will perish under the debris.”

Peskov refused to disclose any details about the Kremlin’s deal with the Wagner chief. He said only that Putin had provided Prigozhin with “certain promises … certain guarantees,” with the aim of avoiding a “worst-case scenario.”

The mercenaries shot down at least six Russian helicopters and a military communications plane as they advanced on Moscow, according to Russian news reports. The Defense Ministry didn’t release any information about casualties, but media reports said at least a dozen airmen were killed.

Asked why the rebels were allowed to get as close as about 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) from Moscow without facing any serious resistance, National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov said authorities tried to assemble a strong force capable of stopping the onslaught.

“We concentrated our forces in one fist closer to Moscow,” he told reporters. “If we spread them thin, they would have come like a knife through butter.”

Zolotov also said the National Guard lacks battle tanks and other heavy weapons and now would get them.

In a nationally televised address Monday night, Putin again blasted organizers of the rebellion as traitors who played into the hands of Ukraine’s government and its allies. Although critical of Prigozhin, Putin praised Wagner troops’ action in Ukraine and credited those who “didn’t engage in fratricidal bloodshed and stopped on the brink.”

That was “likely in an effort to retain them” in the fight in Ukraine because Moscow needs “trained and effective manpower” as it faces a Ukrainian counteroffensive, according to a Washington-based think tank.

The Institute for the Study of War also noted 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.

Prigozhin’s short-lived insurrection rattled Russia’s leadership, and Putin sought to project stability.

In his speech Monday, he criticized the uprising’s “organizers,” without naming Prigozhin. He also praised Russian unity in the face of the crisis, as well as rank-and-file Wagner fighters for not letting the situation descend into “major bloodshed.”

Putin returned to this theme in a Kremlin speech Tuesday — his third in four days — to soldiers and law enforcement officers, praising them for averting “a civil war.” He again declared that the army and people didn’t support the mutiny, but avoided mentioning Prigozhin by name.

As part of the effort to cement Putin’s authority following the chaotic response to the mutiny, the ceremony featured Putin walking down the red-carpeted stairs of the Kremlin’s 15th century white-stone Palace of Facets to address a lineup of troops.

Putin mentioned the casualties 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.”

Putin’s mention of the deaths comes amid angry statements from some Russian war bloggers and patriotic activists who vented outrage about Prigozhin and his troops not getting punished for killing the airmen. Prigozhin voiced regret for the deaths in an audio statement Monday, but said Wagner troops fired because they were getting bombed.

In another show of projecting authority, Putin was shown meeting Monday night with top security, law enforcement and military officials, including Shoigu.

Putin thanked his team for their work over the weekend, implying support for the embattled Shoigu. Earlier, authorities released video of Shoigu reviewing troops in Ukraine.

In his defiant statement Monday, Prigozhin taunted the Russian military but said he hadn’t been seeking to stage a coup against Putin.

It isn’t clear whether he will be able to keep his mercenary force. Putin has offered Prigozhin’s fighters to either come under Russia’s Defense Ministry’s command, leave service or go to Belarus.

Prigozhin said, without elaborating, that the Belarusian leadership proposed solutions that would allow Wagner to operate “in a legal jurisdiction,” but it was unclear what that meant.

Lukashenko said there is no reason to fear Wagner’s presence in his country, though in Russia there have been recent incidents of Wagner-recruited convicts being suspected of violent crimes.

The Wagner troops have “priceless” military knowledge and experience they can share with Belarus, Lukashenko said during a meeting with his defense minister, including tactics and weapons.

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.”

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