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The role of Belarus' Lukashenko in resolving the Russia-Wagner Group conflict

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We are continuing to track the fallout from last weekend's uprising of Wagner Group mercenaries against Russia's military leadership. But from what we know, a major player in resolving the dispute was Aleksandr Lukashenko, the strongman leader of Belarus. He's long had close ties with Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. NPR Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes has been looking into Lukashenko's role, and he joins us on the line. Hi, there.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi, there.

SUMMERS: So Charles, both the Kremlin and the head of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, say the leader of neighboring Belarus was the key intermediary. So tell us, what was his role exactly?

MAYNES: Well, Lukashenko says he was on the phone with Prigozhin and the Kremlin throughout the crisis. That allowed him to broker a deal by which Prigozhin agreed to pull back his forces in exchange for an amnesty deal for Prigozhin and his men. That includes Lukashenko hosting them in exile in Belarus. So that's the gist of the bargain that we know. Yet in a televised meeting with his generals yesterday, Lukashenko shared all sorts of juicy details - for example, that Prigozhin spent the first half-hour yelling obscenities into the phone. And also this one - Lukashenko talked Putin out of murdering Prigozhin outright.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ALEKSANDR LUKASHENKO: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Lukashenko says he told Putin, "OK, we can kill him, no problem, but it's a bad idea."

Lukashenko said there wouldn't be any negotiations, and Wagner's fighters would strike back. And even though Russia would win in the end, thousands of civilians would die.

Now, it's hard to parse truth from false modesty here. And Putin, yesterday, made clear the amnesty deal was his decision. But no question about it, Lukashenko comes away looking like the cooler head in all of this. All sides are giving him credit for that.

SUMMERS: OK, so that raises the question of why Lukashenko - what is the nature of his relationship with Putin?

MAYNES: Well, Lukashenko has been the leader of Belarus for over two decades now. Yet, in 2020, Lukashenko's hold on power appeared under threat after he was accused of rigging elections. And when hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in protest, it was Putin who came to Lukashenko's rescue, providing financial aid and at least the threat of additional Russian forces to suppress the uprising. So one way you could look at it is that these recent events - Lukashenko is essentially repaying the favor. Yet I spoke with Yauheni Preiherman of the Minsk Dialogue Council - that's an international affairs think tank in the capital of Belarus - who said this was Lukashenko really protecting his own interests against the political opposition that fled Belarus in the 2020 crackdown, but continue to hope for democratic change.

YAUHENI PREIHERMAN: And they were immediately saying that this whole situation creates a window of opportunity for him. So Lukashenko's exact interest was to ensure that no major destabilization happens in Russia because, had that happens, a window of opportunity for the opposition would indeed have emerged.

SUMMERS: And Charles, I mean, Belarus is or is certainly one of Russia's closest allies. What role has the country played in the war in Ukraine?

MAYNES: You know, ever since 2020, Lukashenko has been beholden to Putin for that help, and it's chipped away at Belarus' sovereignty. It's turned it into a client state of Russia's. And Putin since has been pushing for a long-stalled union state between the two countries to take hold, with Belarus clearly the junior partner. And even though Belarus isn't formally part of the war in Ukraine - in the sense that its soldiers aren't fighting - the country is nonetheless clearly Russia's ally in the conflict. Russia used Belarus as a staging ground to invade Ukraine. It's also using Belarus now as a storage facility for its tactical nuclear weapons. And the question now is, with Wagner forces apparently setting up shop in Belarus, are they there to serve Russia's interest, or perhaps could Wagner be of use to Lukashenko?

SUMMERS: OK. Well, what do we know so far?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Lukashenko yesterday said Wagner mercenaries can use a military training facility in Belarus if they want to set up camp, but yet we don't really know what their long-term plans are.

And meanwhile, a bit of mystery here - a plane believed to belong to Prigozhin, which arrived in Minsk yesterday, was actually seen flying back to Russia today. So while we've had Lukashenko say Prigozhin is in Belarus, we haven't actually seen Prigozhin himself.

SUMMERS: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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