The latest on the head of the Wagner Group, who has returned to Russia
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
The head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is back in Russia nearly two weeks after the mercenary group's failed uprising against the country's military leadership. This is all according to the leader of Belarus, who negotiated an exit to last month's insurrection with the Kremlin by offering to host Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries in exile. To read the tea leaves on Prigozhin's whereabouts and what it means for the future of Wagner, we are joined by NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, good afternoon.
CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.
DETROW: The latest plot twist in a story full of plot twists. But I mean, let's just stress again that that the information here that Prigozhin is back in Russia is coming from Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. What exactly did Lukashenko have to say about this?
MAYNES: Yeah. You know, just to back it up a bit and remind everyone, Prigozhin launched this mutiny by seizing a major Russian city and marching to the outskirts of the capital, Moscow, basically untouched. And the mutiny only ended when Lukashenko brokered a compromise. Prigozhin would pull back his forces in exchange for exile and amnesty in Belarus. Now, the problem is nobody's actually seen Prigozhin since. The assumption was he might well be in Belarus. And yet today, in a press conference in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, Lukashenko said that wasn't the case.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT ALEKSANDR LUKASHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).
MAYNES: So here you can hear Lukashenko casually say, as far as Prigozhin is concerned, he is now in Saint Petersburg. In other words, in Russia, not Belarus. Now, the Kremlin spokesman was asked about this, and he said the government has neither the ability nor desire to follow Prigozhin's every movement. And all of this seems to cast doubt over the terms of this amnesty deal that ended the rebellion in the first place.
DETROW: Well, given all of the drama of these recent events, how is Prigozhin and how is this rebellion being portrayed in Russia?
MAYNES: Well, President Vladimir Putin has presented this uprising not as a sign of political infighting, but just the opposite. He argues it failed because society and his security forces all rallied in support of the government against Wagner. And Putin has pushed this inclusive message - you know, we all together save the country from chaos and civil war. Now, Putin has also volunteered that Wagner was funded entirely by the state from the very beginning, hinting at financial improprieties worth investigating.
Meanwhile, we've seen state media cover with intense relish a police raid of Prigozhin's rather palatial home. Their investigators say they found wads of cash, bars of gold, weapons. They showed off Prigozhin's swimming pool, his private helicopter, even multiple passports and disguises - you know, wigs and costumes, that sort of thing. And there's clearly a message in all this. You know, if Prigozhin had built his reputation and public persona on the front lines of Ukraine as a populist who railed against the top brass and against the elite, well, now state media is showing him as a hypocrite. You know, they're basically saying, look how he lives. He is the elite.
DETROW: So if Prigozhin is back in Russia, and that seems to be, from what you're saying, a big if, doesn't that seem like an incredibly risky move for him to take for his personal safety?
MAYNES: You know, it does. We certainly can't rule out the Prigozhin simply isn't playing by the rules of the deal he's struck. And at least for now, he still has this mercenary army that appears quite loyal to him, despite Kremlin demands they sign contracts with the Russian military. But interestingly, a Telegram channel aligned with Wagner posted an audio message claiming to be from Prigozhin earlier this week. Now, we can't be sure it was him, but in this message, a man whose voice certainly resembles Prigozhin promised new victories for Wagner in the near future on the front lines of Ukraine. And again, if it is Prigozhin, it suggests another possible motive that Prigozhin wants to redeem himself, both in the eyes of the public and perhaps the Kremlin.
DETROW: All right. We will stay tuned for your next update on this story. But for now, that is NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, thanks so much.
MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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