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Belarus leader Lukashenko’s purported mediation in Kremlin crisis stretches credibility to the limit

Nearly three years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in his hour of need, backing Europe’s longest-running dictator as he faced a wave of street protests.

Now Lukashenko appears to have come through for Putin, if we are to believe what the Kremlin and the Belarusian presidential press service tell us.

A quick recap: A major crisis shook the foundations of the Russian state Saturday, as forces loyal to Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin marched toward Moscow. Then, an abrupt reversal happened — Prigozhin called off their advance, claiming his mercenaries had come within 124 miles of the capital but were turning around to avoid spilling Russian blood.

According to the Belarusian presidential press service, the decision followed an unexpected intervention by Lukashenko himself. The supposed deal struck with Prigozhin would see the Wagner boss leave for Belarus; a criminal case against the mercenary boss would be dropped; and Wagner fighters would be folded into formal military structures by signing contracts with the Russian ministry of defense.

But those, it’s worth emphasizing, are only the bare outlines of the deal. Prigozhin — whereabouts currently unknown — has not commented on the supposed agreement. And the Kremlin and Belarusian account of Lukashenko’s mediation appear to stretch credibility.

“You will probably ask me – why Lukashenko?” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Saturday. “The fact is that Alexander Grigoryevich (Lukashenko) has known Prigozhin personally for a long time, for about 20 years. And it was his personal proposal, which was agreed with President Putin. We are grateful to the President of Belarus for these efforts.”

Those efforts, Peskov claimed, “managed to resolve this situation without further losses, without increasing the level of tension.”

Still, Lukashenko’s apparent intercession raises more questions than it answers.

For starters, Lukashenko is clearly seen as the junior partner in the relationship with Putin. And Belarus depends on Russia for aid: At the height of Lukashenko’s confrontation with protesters, Putin came through with a loan of $1.5 billion. And Belarus has been a springboard for Russian military operations in Ukraine, something that has isolated Lukashenko further from the West and triggered new sanctions on the country’s economy.

So what’s to gain here for Lukashenko? It seems difficult to envision Prigozhin happily harvesting potatoes alongside the Belarusian leader, a former collective farm boss. And why was Putin — who until this weekend, was the reliable arbiter of elite disputes in Russia — unable to cut that deal himself? Delegating Lukashenko to resolve the crisis further damages Putin’s image as a decisive man of action.

The initial details we have, it seems, do not completely add up. And adding to that uncertainty are other questions: What will happen to the Wagner “brand?” Will Prigozhin’s foot soldiers be compliant and let themselves be absorbed into the Russian military? Will they still have loyalty to their boss? And what about Wagner forces operating elsewhere in the world, from Africa to the Middle East?

Prigozhin — if and when he surfaces — may give us some clues.

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