MOSCOW - Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the private army of prison recruits and other mercenaries who have fought some of the deadliest battles in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, escaped prosecution for his abortive armed rebellion against the Kremlin and is in Belarus, that country’s president said.
The exile of the 62-year-old owner of the Wagner Group was part of the deal that ended the short-lived mutiny in Russia. He and some of his troops are welcome to stay "for some time" at their own expense, President Alexander Lukashenko said.
The Russian Defense Ministry said preparations are under way for Wagner to hand over its heavy weapons to the Russian military. Prigozhin had said those moves were underway ahead of a July 1 deadline for his troops to sign contracts to serve under the Russian military’s command.
FILE - Yevgeny Prigozhin attends a meeting with foreign investors at Konstantin Palace on June 16, 2016, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Russian authorities also said Tuesday that they have closed a criminal investigation into the uprising and are pressing no charges against Prigozhin or his followers after the negotiated deal. The Federal Security Service, or FSB, said they, "ceased activities directed at committing the crime."
Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to set the stage for charges of financial wrongdoing against an affiliated organization owned by Prigozhin.
He told a military gathering that Prigozhin’s Concord Group earned 80 billion rubles ($941 million) from a contract to provide the military with food, and that Wagner had received over 86 billion rubles (over $1 billion) in the past year for wages and additional items.
"I hope that while doing so they didn’t steal anything or stole not so much," Putin said, adding that authorities would look closely at Concord’s contract.
For years, Prigozhin has had lucrative catering contracts with the Russian government. Police who searched his St. Petersburg office on Saturday said they found 4 billion rubles ($48 million) in trucks outside, according to media reports confirmed by the Wagner boss. He said the money was intended to pay soldiers’ families.
Over the weekend, the Kremlin had pledged not to prosecute Prigozhin and his fighters after he stopped the revolt on Saturday, less than 24 hours after it began, even though Putin had branded them as traitors and authorities rushed to fortify Moscow's defenses as the mutineers approached the capital.
The charge of mounting an armed mutiny is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Prigozhin escaping prosecution poses a stark contrast to how the Kremlin has treated those staging anti-government protests in Russia, where many opposition figures have gotten long sentences in notoriously harsh penal colonies.
Prigozhin issued no public statements Tuesday.
The series of stunning events in recent days constitutes the gravest threat so far to Putin’s grip on power amid the 16-month-old war in Ukraine.
In addresses Monday and Tuesday, Putin has sought to project stabilit y and demonstrate authority.
In his Kremlin speech to soldiers and law enforcement officers on Tuesday, Putin praised them for averting "a civil war." The ceremony featured the president walking down the red-carpeted stairs of the Kremlin’s 15th century white-stone Palace of Facets to address the troops.
Russian media on Tuesday showed Defense Secretary Shoigu, in his military uniform, greeting Cuba’s visiting defense minister in a pomp-heavy ceremony. Prigozhin has said his goal had been to oust Shoigu and other top Russian military leaders, not stage a coup agianst Putin.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for 29 years while relying on Russian subsidies and support, portrayed the uprising as the latest development in the clash between Prigozhin and Shoigu. While the mutiny unfolded, he said, he put Belarus' armed forces on a combat footing and urged Putin not to be hasty in his response, lest the conflict with Wagner spiral out of control.
Like Putin, Lukashenko portrayed the war in Ukraine as an existential threat, saying, "If Russia collapses, we all will perish under the debris."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov would not disclose details about the Kremlin's deal with the Wagner chief. He said only that Putin had provided Prigozhiin with "certain guarantees," with the aim of avoiding a "worst-case scenario."
Asked why the rebels were allowed to get as close as about 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) from Moscow without facing any serious resistance, National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov told reporters, "We concentrated our forces in one fist closer to Moscow. If we spread them thin, they would have come like a knife through butter."
Zolotov also said the National Guard lacks battle tanks and other heavy weapons and now would get them.
The mercenaries shot down at least six Russian helicopters and a military communications plane as they advanced on Moscow, killing at least a dozen airmen, according to Russian news reports. The Defense Ministry didn’t release information about casualties.
Putin mentioned the casualties Tuesday and honored those killed with a moment of silence.
"Pilots, our combat comrades, died while confronting the mutiny," he said. "They didn’t waver and fulfilled the orders and their military duty with dignity."
FILE IMAGE - Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with the country's top security officials in Moscow on June 26, 2023. (Photo by VALERY SHARIFULIN/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)
Some Russian war bloggers and patriotic activists have vented outrage about Prigozhin and his troops not getting punished for killing the airmen. Prigozhin voiced regret for the deaths in an audio statement Monday, but said Wagner troops fired because they were getting bombed.
In a televised address Monday night, Putin said organizers of the rebellion had played into the hands of Ukraine’s government and its allies. Although critical of their leaders, he praised the mutineers who "didn’t engage in fratricidal bloodshed and stopped on the brink."
A Washington-based think tank said that was "likely in an effort to retain them" in the fight in Ukraine because Moscow needs "trained and effective manpower" as it faces a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The Institute for the Study of War also said the break between Putin and Prigozhin is likely beyond repair, and that providing the Wagner chief and his loyalists with Belarus as an apparent safe haven could be a trap.
On Monday, too, Putin was shown meeting Shoigu and other top security, law enforcement and military officials. Putin thanked them for their work over the weekend, implying support for the embattled Shoigu.
In a defiant statement Monday, Prigozhin taunted the Russian military again. It wasn't clear whether he will be able to keep his mercenary force. Putin has offered Prigozhin's fighters to either come under Russia's Defense Ministry's command, leave service or go to Belarus.
Prigozhin said, without elaborating, that the Belarusian leadership proposed solutions that would allow Wagner to operate "in a legal jurisdiction," but it was unclear what that meant.
Lukashenko said there is no reason to fear Wagner’s presence in his country, though in Russia there have been recent incidents of Wagner-recruited convicts being suspected of violent crimes. The Wagner troops have "priceless" military knowledge and experience they can share with Belarus, he said during a meeting with his defense minister
But Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in a 2020 election that was widely seen as fraudulent and triggered mass protests, said Wagner troops will threaten the country and its neighbors.
"Belarusians don’t welcome war criminal Prigozhin," she told The Associated Press. "If Wagner sets up military bases on our territory, it will pose a new threat to our sovereignty and our neighbors."
Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed.