As the proverbial dust settles from Yevgeny Prigozhin’s staged rebellion in Russia over the weekend, Belarus’ opposition signaled Monday that they harbor fears Prigozhin’s tear might not be over yet—and that Wagner mercenaries could attempt a similar rebellion in their own country.
“Many people in Belarus, including in the military, themselves will be really nervous to see Prigozhin’s guys on our territory,” Valery Kavaleuski, a foreign affairs representative for the Belarusian opposition’s shadow government, told The Daily Beast.
“They could easily overtake Belarus in general,” Kavaleuski added, referring to Wagner group mercenaries. “This is a huge force that could take under control this whole country.”
The democratic opposition in Belarus—which has been working to chip away at Aleksandr Lukashenko’s near-30-year grip on power—has been nervously eyeing reports that Wagner mercenary boss Prigozhin agreed to be exiled to Belarus under a deal brokered by Belarusian strongman Lukashenko with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It was that deal that abruptly ended the Wagner mutiny as a column of mercenaries approached Moscow late on Saturday, when Prigozhin called on his troops to withdraw from Russia and head back to field camps in Ukraine.
But reporting emerged Monday suggesting that field camps were being established in Belarusian territory for Wagner mercenaries, setting off alarm bells in the country’s democratic opposition circles that Prigozhin could be poised to cause more trouble within Belarus.
“It looks really raw for Belarus that Belarus will now now host no less than an army of mercenaries, of cutthroats, who are very well trained, who are ruthless, who are effective in killing, who have been implicated in war crimes,” Kavaleuski told The Daily Beast. “On all counts, this is really bad news. This creates grave threats to the Belarusian society.”
The democratic opposition in Belarus has long said that Russia’s use of Belarusian territory to stage troops and launch attacks into Ukraine has grown into a kind of partial occupation, such that Belarus needs to be deoccupied, as The Daily Beast has reported. Now, with the prospect of Wagner mercenaries moving in, the hybrid occupation seems to be growing by the day.
And while Lukashenko is allegedly letting Prigozhin enter Belarus as part of the agreement to call off the mutiny against Russia and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, it’s not clear how much control Lukashenko will have over Prigozhin, Kenneth Yalowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Belarus warned.
“For Lukashenko, you would have, in effect, almost like Russian troops occupying Belarus, and that will not go down very well with his public,” he told the Daily Beast Monday.
With Prigozhin’s recent track record of going rogue against his former close ally, Putin, Prigozhin likely won’t feel any loyalties towards Lukashenko either, raising the prospect of continued mutinous activities.
“I definitely don't see any loyalty there, be it for Lukashenko or the republic of Belarus,” Kavaleuski said. “They turned on Putin, so what would be their motivation to stay with Lukashenko to pursue his political objectives?”
Concerns have even begun emerging in recent days that the presence of Prigozhin’s 25,000-strong force in Belarus could lead to escalating tensions or even an attack on neighboring countries, including Ukraine and neighboring Poland, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
“They create danger to Ukraine. Because… if they move to Belarus, this is sizable, and they can threaten Ukraine from the North,” Kavaleuski warned. “They can threaten the NATO and EU countries by provocations.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also announced that following Prigozhin’s deal with Belarus, Poland was “anticipating attacks” and would be enhancing its defensive military units along its border with Belarus.
A Ukrainian commander added that any attacks from Belarus on the country’s northern border would be a suicide mission for the Russians.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the democratic opposition in Belarus, said Monday global leaders must come together to recognize that Russia is punting its problems into Belarus, and they may only grow from there.
“Belarusians are not pawns in the game of dictators,” she said on social media. “We refuse to be held as hostages of Russia's domestic conflicts. The world must stand with us as we defend our sovereignty; this is a fight for all of Europe's future.
Although Prigozhin has rebelled against Putin’s leadership in recent days, it isn’t clear if Prigozhin will be able to totally detach himself and his military goals from the Kremlin’s, Kavaleuski warned.
“We clearly understand that they will be following the interest of the Kremlin,” Kavaleuski said.
For now, the fate of Wagner Group hangs in the balance. The White House has been closely monitoring Prigozhin’s rebellion and its aftermath in Russia, with President Joe Biden receiving hour-by-hour updates from his national security team to prepare for “a range of scenarios,” National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby told reporters in a briefing Monday.
The White House refused to predict what the impact will be to Wagner’s operations moving forward.
“It’s just too soon to know,” Kirby said. “It’s too early to speculate on the impact these events might have or to reach any definitive conclusions.”
Kirby added that he didn’t know where Prigozhin was Monday afternoon.
Reports began circulating Monday suggesting that Prigozhin had been spotted in Minsk, the Belarusian capital.
Lukashenko’s press team said they didn’t know if Prigozhin had arrived.