Mercenary chief Prigozhin starts exile in Belarus, Putin praises Russian troops

Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin arrived in Belarus on Tuesday under a deal that ended a brief mutiny by his fighters, as President Vladimir Putin praised his armed forces for averting a civil war.

A plane linked to Prigozhin and believed to be carrying him into exile was shown on a flight tracking service taking off from the southern Russian city of Rostov early on Tuesday and landing in Belarus.

“I see Prigozhin is already flying in on this plane,” state news agency BELTA quoted Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko as saying. “Yes, indeed, he is in Belarus today.”

In Moscow, Putin sought to reassert his authority after the mutiny led by Prigozhin in protest against the Russian military’s handling of the conflict in Ukraine.

Russian authorities also dropped a criminal case against his Wagner Group mercenary force, state news agency RIA reported, apparently fulfilling another condition of the deal brokered by Lukashenko late on Saturday that defused the crisis.

Prigozhin, a former Putin ally and ex-convict whose mercenaries have fought the bloodiest battles of the Ukraine war and taken heavy casualties, had earlier said he would go to neighbouring Belarus at the invitation of Lukashenko, a close ally of Putin and an acquaintance of the Wagner chief.

Flight tracking service Flightradar24’s website showed an Embraer Legacy 600 jet, bearing identification codes that match a plane linked to Prigozhin in US sanctions documents, descending to landing altitude near the Belarus capital Minsk.

It first appeared on the tracking site above Rostov, the southern Russian city that Prigozhin’s fighters had captured during the mutiny.

Prigozhin had last been seen on Saturday night smiling and high-fiving bystanders as he rode out of Rostov in the back of an SUV after ordering his men to stand down. He has not yet been seen in public in Belarus.

Russian service members wait before President Vladimir Putin's address paying honour to armed forces, that upheld order during recent mutiny, in Cathedral Square at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Jun 27, 2023.
Russian service members wait before President Vladimir Putin’s address paying honour to armed forces, that upheld order during recent mutiny, in Cathedral Square at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Jun 27, 2023. |Sputnik/Sergei Guneev/REUTERS

‘YOU HAVE STOPPED CIVIL WAR’

Putin meanwhile told some 2,500 Russian security personnel mustered for a ceremony on a square in the Kremlin complex in Moscow that the people and the armed forces had stood together in opposition to the rebel mercenaries.

“You have defended the constitutional order, the lives, security and freedom of our citizens. You have saved our motherland from upheaval. In fact, you have stopped a civil war,” he said.

Putin was joined by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, whose dismissal had been one of the mutineers’ main demands.

Putin also requested a minute of silence to honour Russian military pilots killed in the revolt. Wagner fighters had shot down several aircraft during their run towards Moscow, although they faced no resistance on the ground.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a news briefing on Tuesday the deal ending the mutiny was being implemented.

He dismissed the idea that Putin’s grip on power had been shaken by the mutiny, calling such thoughts “hysteria”.

Russian leaders have tried to convey that the situation is returning to normal. Putin met on Monday night with the heads of security services, including Defence Minister Shoigu.

He also made a late-night televised address on Monday in which he said that the mutiny leaders had betrayed their motherland, although he did not mention Prigozhin by name.

Russia’s enemies wanted to see the country “choke in bloody civil strife” but Russia would not succumb to “any blackmail, any attempt to create internal turmoil”, Putin said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a televised address in Moscow, Russia, Jun 26, 2023, in this still image taken from video.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a televised address in Moscow, Russia, Jun 26, 2023, in this still image taken from video. |Kremlin/REUTERS

DEMONSTRATION OF PROTEST

Prigozhin, 62, said he launched the mutiny to save his group after being ordered to place it under command of the defence ministry, which he has cast as ineffectual in its conduct of the war in Ukraine.

His fighters had halted their campaign on Saturday to avert bloodshed after nearly reaching Moscow, and regretted being forced to shoot down aircraft on the way, he said.

“We went as a demonstration of protest, not to overthrow the government of the country,” Prigozhin said in an audio message on Monday.

Lukashenko said on Tuesday that his country would accommodate Wagner fighters who wanted to go there, though it was not building any camps for them.

“We offered them one of the abandoned military bases. Please – we have a fence, we have everything – put up your tents,” Lukashenko said, according to BELTA.

The prospect of Wagner establishing a base in Belarus was greeted with alarm by some of its neighbours. Latvia and Lithuania called for NATO to strengthen its eastern borders in response, and Polish President Andrzej Duda called the move a “negative signal”.

Ukraine hopes the chaos caused by the mutiny attempt in Russia will undermine Russian defences as Kyiv presses on with a counteroffensive to recapture occupied territory. It claimed on Monday to have taken a ninth village in the south where it has been advancing since early June.

Explosions were heard in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk after a Russian air strike on Tuesday, a Ukrainian air force spokesman said.

Kremenchuk is the site of a Ukrainian oil refinery that has been attacked repeatedly by Russia since it invaded Ukraine 16 months ago. Ukrainian officials have said it is no longer functioning.

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