There was an atmosphere of nervous excitement in the offices of the Belarusian opposition in Vilnius and Warsaw late June as Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin rebelled against the Kremlin elite and marched on Moscow. It seemed that troubles inside Russia might keep President Vladimir Putin preoccupied and leave his ally in Minsk to fend for himself.
For the first time in three years, since Aleksandr Lukashenko allegedly rigged the elections and forced opposition leaders into exile, there was cautious hope that they may find the chance they were looking for to launch an uprising, depose the autocrat, and usher in democratic governance.
“We thought that this could develop into the X hour—when the window of opportunity for our victory opens again,” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the democratic opposition, wrote to Foreign Policy in an email. Tsikhanouskaya quickly reached out to all pro-democracy Belarusian representatives, including “the Belarusian volunteer units in the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” she said.
“We were feeling so motivated,” added Pavel Latushka, her deputy and former Belarusian minister of culture, from Warsaw. “We convened a meeting of the transitional cabinet on Zoom,” he said over the phone, and pulled out the Peramoga, or Victory Plan—which lays out the steps to overthrow Lukashenko.
“Tens of thousands of activists would go to places they needed to and start their activities,” encouraging hundreds of thousands of others to join en masse, he said, alluding to large-scale protests including sabotage actions.
But the exhilaration was short-lived. Their hopes were quashed, once again, by Lukashenko himself, who mediated between Putin and Prigozhin on June 24 and brought the Russian mutiny to an anticlimactic end. He played statesman, a loyal ally, and in his usual braggadocious manner relayed details of how he advised the Russian president against executing Prigozhin.
“I said to Putin: ‘Yes we could take him out, it wouldn’t be a problem, if it doesn’t work the first time then it would the second,” he bragged to Belarusian security officials while sharing selected chunks of his conversation with the Russian president. “I told him: ‘Don’t do it, because afterwards there will be no negotiations and these guys will be ready to do anything.’”
Lukashenko will perhaps never stop boasting about saving the day for the Kremlin, but Belarusian politicians and analysts believe his intervention was rooted in self-interest. He hoped to further a long-nurtured ambition or at the very least ensure his own survival as Belarus’s president.
Lukashenko understands that instability in Russia would spill over to Belarus and strengthen democratic forces at home threatening his rule. Some say he owes his survival to Putin, who assured him of military reinforcements amid mass protests in 2020 and sent him a billion and a half dollars in a loan to strengthen his position. If and when the democratic forces rise again, Lukashenko knows he has only one ally. But protecting Wagner from Putin’s wrath and allowing it to base in Belarus, analysts said, opened up other opportunities, too, including partnering with Wagner in its resource loot in Africa and using the mercenaries as an extra tier of personal security at home.
“On the day of the mutiny in Russia, he tried to help his senior partner, his boss, to pay him back and show his loyalty,” Pavel Slunkin, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former Belarusian diplomat, told Foreign Policy on a visit to Brussels. Slunkin believes that contrary to Lukashenko’s claims, he was merely Putin’s messenger and not a negotiator on equal footing.
While there are varied interpretations of how big a part Lukashenko actually played in bringing the Russian mutiny to an end, there is a consensus that he was directly involved.
“Putin was about to obliterate Wagner, but several hours later there is an agreement that Prigozhin will go to Belarus, and no one even touches him,” said Yauheni Preiherman, the founder and director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations. “Lukashenko did exercise his agency.”
Since brokering the deal, Lukashenko’s popularity inside Russia has skyrocketed. According to a poll by Levada Center on July 1, a week after he brokered the deal, Lukashenko was the second most popular politician in Russia, after the Russian president. For a man who wanted the top job in Russia, such high popularity could be a reason for strife with his patron. Yet Lukashenko has played a bold game.
A firm believer in the Soviet Union, Lukashenko rose from humble beginnings—from a deputy chairman of a collective farm to the position of president. In 1999, when he agreed to the treaty to form the Union State of Russia and Belarus, a supranational union, he had hoped he would become the president of the Russian Federation and Belarus. But in the end, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin chose Putin as his successor.
“I have met this guy many times, and I can tell you what he is thinking—he still wants to be the president,” of the Russian Federation and Belarus, Latushka said. “Over the last month, Lukashenko has met many governors of the Russian region,” Latushka claimed. “Now he has created maximum support in Russian society, especially among the elite, and he is sending the message ‘I am your guy,’ he is playing his own game.”
But while Lukashenko wants to lead a combined Russian and Belarusian state, he doesn’t want Putin to merge the two, rendering him jobless. He has been skeptical that Putin might one day unseat him and has at times made overtures toward the West.
Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian scholar at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said Russian attacks on Georgia and Crimea unsettled Lukashenko, who feared Belarus could be next. However, during every election, he has turned to Moscow’s assurances to curb dissent and stay in his chair.
“When Russia attacked Georgia in 2008, he started to flirt with the West. Then elections came in 2010, and Lukashenko cracked down on protesters. That froze relations with the West,” Shraibman said. “In 2015, relations with the West started to normalize again, and he started to release political prisoners. That was after Russia annexed Crimea. But then there was another election in 2020 with far greater public mobilization and bigger protests.” Again, Lukashenko cracked down on protesters with Putin’s backing and relations with the West collapsed, Shraibman added.
Putin needs Lukashenko, too. As he invaded Ukraine, he banked on his only ally in the region to station Russian troops and threaten the West that he would move Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus that shares a border with NATO states. But Lukashenko is by far more dependent on Putin’s goodwill, which he may have risked with his recent bluster. At first Putin thanked his Belarusian counterpart, but later seemed to downplay his role by crediting Russian security forces with stopping a “civil war.”
Furthermore, in an insult, even Wagner seems to have rejected Lukashenko’s proposal. A day after he offered refuge to Wagner fighters, he tried to sell the idea to Belarusians, vehemently opposed to hosting the mercenaries, as beneficial to the Belarusian army. “They will tell us about weapons,” he said, “which worked well, and which didn’t. And tactics, how to attack, how to defend.” Belarusian news agency Belta quoted Lukashenko on its Telegram channel confirming Prigozhin’s arrival. “I see that Prigozhin is already flying on this plane. Yes, indeed, he is in Belarus today,” he said.
In an attempt to show his readiness to host Wagner, Lukashenko allowed the independent press to see thousands of tents erected in an unused military base. But two weeks after he brokered the deal they lie vacant, and Wagner fighters, along with their chief, are in Russia trying to strike a deal with the Russian president.
The Kremlin confirmed that more than 30 Wagner commanders met Putin on June 29 and presented their version of what transpired over June 23 and 24. They underscored that they are staunch supporters and soldiers of the head of state and the commander-in-chief” and wish to continue to “fight for their homeland,” in Ukraine. Putin has offered them “options for further employment and further use in combat,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.
As Putin scrambled to contain the rebellion, Lukashenko found a moment to shine and prove his relevance. But the challenge to Putin has also boosted the morale of Belarusian opposition. The mutiny has exposed Putin’s invincibility as “an illusion,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “Lukashenko will not last even a day without Putin.”
“Belarus is boiling, and the only way to keep the lid on is by increasing repression,” she said, adding that there are more than 5,000 political prisoners in Belarus, with only a third officially recognized—including her husband. “But at one point, this won’t work anymore, and the lid will blow off.”