July 6 (UPI) — Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday the leader of Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was in Russia after saying he was in Belarus last week.
Prigozhin, who was supposed to have moved to Belarus as part of a deal to defuse a mutiny by the forces of his private army, was in St. Petersburg and “not on the territory of Belarus,” Lukashenko said.
He said that Wagner forces had not moved to Belarus either and remained on their bases in eastern Ukraine and southern Russia but that his offer for them to relocate to Belarus was still open.
“At present, the issue of their relocation has not been resolved,” Lukashenko said.
Lukashenko added that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not seek to destroy Prigozhin because he was not “malevolent and vindictive” and said he would discuss Wagner’s future with the Russian leader when he met with him in the near future.
The Kremlin also said it was “not following” Prigozhin’s movements.
The exact movements of Prigozhin, are unclear apart from the fact Lukashenko confirmed his arrival in Belarus on June 27.
But flight tracking of Prigozhin’s private jet carried out by the BBC shows it returned to Russia the same day, although it wasn’t publicly known whether he was on board. Since then, the aircraft has made a number of flights between St. Petersburg and Moscow.
The 62-year-old former chef and ex-convict has not been seen in public since leaving Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia after his mercenaries took over the city for a short time.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg echoed Lukashenko’s claims, telling Politico that while preparations were underway in Belarus to receive Wagner fighters, few had made the journey.
“We have seen some preparations for the hosting of Wagner forces. We have so far not yet seen so many of them arriving,” Stoltenberg said.
“We are, of course, closely following what’s going on in Belarus. What we have seen is that the Wagner forces continue to operate in Africa,” adding that while few had moved to Belarus, some remained in Ukraine “but not at the frontlines.”
Stoltenberg said it was too soon to figure out the end consequences for Wagner of its failed challenge to the Putin regime.
The group was initially accused of treason, but a hasty deal, brokered in part by Lukashenko, saw charges against Prigozhin dropped, apparently in exchange for his leaving Russia for Belarus.
The criminal case against Wagner fighters was also dropped and they were given the option of signing up to the regular army, demobilizing, or following their leader to Belarus.
However, Moscow has begun investigating $2 billion worth of military contracts awarded to Wagner and Prigozhin’s catering firm and breaking up his business empire, targeting his network of media outlets in particular, many of which have been blocked or shut down.