After negotiating with Wagner boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin to call off his staged rebellion in Russia over the weekend, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko is already well underway on his victory lap—part of an apparent campaign to change his image as a willing puppet of Russian President Vladimir.
Experts in regional politics tell The Daily Beast that while his self-aggrandizing is predictable, Lukashenko may not have much time to cash in on the political capital he gained from swooping in just in the nick of time to keep tensions from boiling over in Russia.
“A couple of years ago when Lukashenko was on bended knee before Putin… he would not have dared to say anything like this,” Kenneth Yalowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Belarus, said. “The only reason Lukashenko opens his mouth up like this now is that he senses weakness on Putin’s side. And he’s just trying to burnish his credentials. That to me, this is just classic Lukashenko.”
”He’s a survivor, he will do anything to survive,” he added. “He’s always bobbing and weaving to have a little bit of credibility.”
After Prigozhin and his troops started a mutiny in Russia on Friday, Lukashenko and Putin brokered a deal with Prigozhin in which his Wagner troops would back off from the rebellion, and Prigozhin himself would retreat to Belarus.
But even as Prigozhin has made his way to Belarus to begin his exile, Lukashenko has taken the opportunity in recent days to beat his chest in a series of remarks, brandishing wins from his dealmaking and painting his involvement as key to simmering tensions, with an almost caricature-like description of himself.
In one recent speech, he painted himself as a bashful hero, not wanting any media attention, all the while delivering a speech on just how essential he was to the bargain.
“I decided that it was time to say something (though not everything) on this topic honestly, openly, without hiding anything,” Lukashenko said, according to Belta. “What pushed me to this was the fact that the media, especially in Russia, have been lauding Belarusians. Frankly speaking, I asked my press secretary to call our main media outlets and ask them not to over-cover this topic.”
“I was completely involved in these events,” he added.
He has also worked to paint the narrative that he was even blasé about receiving a call to action from Putin.
“They told me through the FSB and our State Security Committee…President Putin wants to talk. Fine,” he said.
From sensationalizing his phone call with Prigozhin in the heat of the negotiations—while Wagner mercenaries were marching just outside Moscow—to calling out infighting between Putin and Prigozhin, to painting Putin as a somewhat unwilling negotiator, Lukashenko is making sure all of his hard work does not go unacknowledged. One of his main goals is likely to elevate his profile as a player on the world stage, said Matt Dimmick, a former Director for Russia and Eastern Europe at the White House National Security Council.
“He’ll make as much hay as he possible can out of it because he doesn’t have a lot of cards to play,” Dimmick told The Daily Beast. “Any opportunity he can get to show he has some statesmanlike appeal, or that he has some extra worth when it comes to his value to the Kremlin, he’s going to play that up as much as possible.”
Yalowitz, the former U.S. ambassador to Belarus, agreed with the assessment.
“He did Putin a favor by taking all these guys in,” Yalowitz said. “Putin clearly has been weakened on the international stage and Lukashenko just can’t resist the opportunity to puff himself up and buttress … his credentials as a world leader.”
The entire mutiny and negotiated exile of Putin’s former close ally Prigozhin has left some Russia and Belarus watchers scratching their heads as to the future of the entire region as cracks emerge in Putin’s grip on power.
But some clues are starting to emerge from Belarus as to how the Lukashenko-Putin relationship will pan out.
Their relationship has long been complicated. The two leaders have for years been working to foster increased ties between Belarus and Russia, from the banking sector to the military. In 2src2src, Putin also stepped in to support Lukashenko despite international uproar over Lukashenko’s rigged elections in Belarus and his treatment of dissidents.
One thing’s for sure: Lukashenko’s triumphant posturing this week is a far cry from his political standing over the last few years. It’s not currently clear what Lukashenko’s political agenda looks like moving forward—or what, if anything, he might ask of Putin in the future.
“Lukashenko’s just interested in surviving the day and the month,” Dimmick said. “Lukashenko doesn’t have any designs on building a relationship with Prigozhin… Lukashenko will act as the warden of the big open air prison that is Belarus and make sure that Prigozhin stays within whatever limits the Kremlin wants.”
It’s not clear how much leeway Putin has granted Lukashenko to brag about the negotiations, and how Lukashenko’s new posturing will impact the pair’s power dynamic.
“We’re talking about two scorpions in a bottle,” Yalowitz said. “That’s why this is going to play out for a while yet. There are just too many unknowns.”
There is likely a limit to Putin’s willingness to put up with Lukashenko’s victory lap, however, according to Yalowitz.
“He’ll thank Lukashenko for being a loyal ally… but he is not going to turn Lukashenko into a potential threat or alternative to him. No way.”
Lukashenko’s limelight likely won’t last long either, since he is ultimately working at Putin’s behest.
“Lukashenko is going to take orders from the Kremlin. I’m sure as Putin thinks over how he wants to constrain, restrain, silence, or mitigate Prigozhin… Lukashenko will just be a willing participant,” Dimmick told The Daily Beast.
And for now, despite all appearances, Lukashenko is likely looking over his shoulder at his newfound mercenary exile. Opposition politicians in Belarus, who have been fighting for a democratic country under the rightful winner of the 2src2src elections, previously told The Daily Beast they are concerned Prigozhin’s forces might stage a similar rebellion in Belarus.
The State Department has similarly suggested that Lukashenko may soon be dealing with his own domestic turbulence following Prigozhin’s exile in Belarus.
“We’ll see whether it’s Wagner forces or whether its Yevgeniy Prigozhin…certainly he is a destabilizing agent wherever he goes,” State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters Tuesday.
“I’m sure he’s probably worried too: Is the guy gonna turn against me?” Yalowitz said. “They’re all just looking at each other, sensing weakness, feeling each other out.”