A weekend of chaos in Russia yielded few winners. Russian President Vladimir Putin is politically wounded, mercenary chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin is in serious trouble and the rest of the world has been left shaken by the sight of a nuclear power appearing to teeter haplessly on the brink.
As the world waits to see what happens next, questions about Lukashenko’s unusual cameo grow. Though much is still uncertain — including just how big his role was — what is clear, analysts said, is that the dictator will use this moment to try to burnish his image and cement his status as a Putin loyalist par excellence.
“In the most dangerous moment in Putin’s biography, Lukashenko was there to help and to serve his boss in Moscow,” said Pavel Slunkin, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former Belarusian diplomat.
“Lukashenko gets points for serving his senior partner and showing to the West that he is close to Putin so he can sell his services as mediator,” he continued, adding, “Which is nonsense because he is part of the war.”
At the same time, the episode could challenge Lukashenko. He appears to have granted Prigozhin, who is famously violent and volatile, safe passage to his country, potentially creating a domestic security risk, especially if Prigozhin’s forces relocate with him. It also might mean Belarus gets dragged back into the Ukraine conflict after serving as a launchpad in the early days.
And then there’s the fact that Lukashenko has doubled down on his partnership with Putin at the moment the Russian leader looks weakest. “This ties Lukashenko even tighter to the sinking ship,” said Tomas Jermalavicius, head of studies and research fellow at Estonia’s International Center for Defense and Security.
In a weekend full of drama, Lukashenko entered the scene at a particularly tense time, as Wagner fighters marched on Moscow. On Saturday evening, as the troops neared the Russian capital, Lukashenko’s office announced that it had brokered a deal with Prigozhin.
“The president of Belarus informed the president of Russia in detail about the results of negotiations with the leadership of Wagner PMC [Private Military Company],” read the statement from Lukashenko’s office. “The president of Russia supported and thanked his Belarusian counterpart for the work done.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later outlined a deal that dropped Russian charges and would see Prigozhin halt his troops in return for passage to Belarus. Prigozhin, for his part, has not mentioned the role of the Belarusian leader.
Peskov cast the agreement as something Lukashenko led, noting that the Belarusian dictator “has been acquainted with Mr. Prigozhin for a long time, at least 20 years.”
Those who follow Lukashenko are not sold on the idea that he was so close to Prigozhin that a promise of safety in Belarus would lead the mercenary leader to completely change course.
“We still don’t know what was in the deal,” Slunkin said.
“What Prigozhin did is very irrational,” he continued. “It was irrational to attack Moscow and even more irrational to stop when you are almost there. We don’t know what he really wanted.”
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said it wasn’t at all clear yet what Lukashenko was even going to do with Prigozhin.
“I think they don’t have an understanding themselves,” she told the Associated Press. “Lukashenko once again has made Belarus a hostage to other people’s games and wars. He is by no means a peacemaker.”
Lukashenko and Putin have a habit of scratching each other’s backs. After a popular uprising in Belarus in 2020, Putin came to the dictator’s aid when others spurned him. In return, Lukashenko allowed Belarus to be used as a staging ground for the war in Ukraine.
That exchange was foremost in the mind of Russian state TV anchor and propagandist Vladimir Solovyov in his praise about how “the excellent relations between our presidents once again saved the Union State from a terrible disaster. In 2020 we came to your aid and now, of course, the role of Alexander Grigoryevich [Lukashenko], his wisdom, his talent as a negotiator cannot be overestimated.”
Serving as the face of negotiations to avert civil war in Russia will make the Belarusian leader a “very, very precious friend” of Moscow, said Artyom Shraibman, a Belarus expert at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.
“And this preciousness is worth money — it will be repaid financially, because that’s how the Belarusian-Russian friendship works.” Lukashenko may have also seen his intervention as a crucial means of staving off challenges at home.
“In this case, this was also existential for him, because if the Putin regime were to fail or to weaken dramatically, it would be a significant blow to the stability of the Lukashenko regime — some would argue a fatal blow,” Shraibman said.
It is not clear if Prigozhin will end up in Belarus, or if he would be safe there. If he does land there — and lives — it could have serious implications for Belarus and its neighbors.
Lithuanian officials have already voiced concern about the possibility of the mutinous mercenary leader moving in next door, saying that Prigozhin’s presence could warrant additional support from NATO allies.
Jermalavicius, of the Estonian center, said giving Prigozhin an invitation to Belarus could hurt Lukashenko domestically.
“There are signs that some are not very happy,” he said. “This is a group renowned for its brutality and its criminal backgrounds — that does not go down well with Belarusians, even those that are passive to the regime.”
“Are his structures prepared to really handle this guy?” he said, noting that for Lukashenko, “this is not a risk-free enterprise.”
Robyn Dixon in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.