Wagner chief in Belarus; NATO vows to protect allies

Policemen stand guard in Moscow, Russia, June 24, 2023. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed on Tuesday that Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private military group, had arrived in Minsk, as NATO warned it was ready to defend against "Moscow or Minsk".

A satellite image from imaging company BlackSky showed two planes linked to Prigozhin at an air base outside the Belarusian capital in the morning.

"I see that Prigozhin is already flying on a plane. Yes, indeed, he is in Belarus today," Lukashenko told state media, adding that Prigozhin and some of his troops were welcome to stay "for some time" at their own expense.

Prigozhin hasn't been seen in any videos or photos since he left the Rostov-on-Don military headquarters in southern Russia on Saturday.

READ MORE: Putin lays out options for Wagner soldiers in national address

Moscow said preparations were underway for Wagner's troops, which numbered 25,000, according to Prigozhin, to hand over their heavy weapons to Russia's military. Prigozhin had said such moves were planned ahead of a July 1 deadline for his fighters to sign contracts — which he opposed — to serve under Russia's military command.

It's too early to make any final judgment about the consequences of the fact that Prigozhin has moved to Belarus and most likely also some of his forces will also be located to Belarus.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General

The Belarusian leader said he had persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin not to "destroy" the Wagner group and Prigozhin.

"The most dangerous thing, as I understand it, is not what the situation was, but how it could develop and its consequences," said Lukashenko on the mediation that led to Prigozhin and Wagner fighters ending their march toward Moscow.

"I also realized there was a harsh decision taken — to destroy. I suggested to Putin not to hurry. Let's talk with Prigozhin, with his commanders," he added.

READ MORE: Russia endeavors to defuse Wagner rebellion

The Kremlin has credited Lukashenko with helping deescalate the situation. Lukashenko was able to draw on a personal relationship with Prigozhin to reach the deal, which would also see Wagner troops and equipment absorbed by the Russian military, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

In a further show of a return to normalcy, Russian media showed Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in uniform greeting visiting Cuban Defense Minister Alvaro Lopez Miera in an elaborate ceremony on Tuesday. Shoigu also delivered his first on-camera remarks since the Wagner fighters' attempted mutiny.

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said a clear message has been sent to Moscow and Minsk that "NATO is there to protect every ally, every inch of NATO territory".

At a joint news conference at The Hague alongside the leaders of seven NATO countries, Stoltenberg said the events relating to the Wagner rebellion were "internal Russian matters".

He told reporters the West must not underestimate Russia, despite the chaos at the weekend.

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"It's too early to make any final judgment about the consequences of the fact that Prigozhin has moved to Belarus and most likely also some of his forces will also be located to Belarus," he said.

In Washington, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Tuesday a new $500 million package of arms to Ukraine, including armored vehicles, precision munitions and mine-clearing equipment.

The Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on four companies from Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the Central African Republic involved in "gold dealing", and one person they say made "weapons deals" tied to the Wagner group.