Prigozhin says Wagner mercenary group for now will not fight in Ukraine

RIGA, Latvia — Wagner boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin, in what appeared to be the first video of him since he led a short-lived rebellion in late June, said the Russian mercenary group will for now not fight in Ukraine and repeated his criticism that Russia’s Ukraine invasion has been botched.

The blurry clip, apparently filmed at dusk, showed a man resembling Prigozhin addressing a crowd of at least several hundred men in military fatigues. He vowed to continue operating the Wagner Group in Africa and turn the military of Belarus, his new host country, into “the second army in the world.”

“Congratulations on the arrival to the Belarusian land. We fought well. You have done a lot for Russia,” Prigozhin said in the clip posted by the ‘Wagner Unloading” Telegram blog and verified by The Washington Post. “Now, what is happening at the front line is a disgrace in which we do not need to participate. And now we need to wait for the moment when we can prove ourselves in full.”

Prigozhin’s irregular troops seized military installations in southern Russia and, on June 24, began to march on Moscow, in a dramatic escalation of his months-long feud with senior Russian Defense Ministry officials whom he accused of incompetence and undercutting his fighters.

The mutiny abruptly ended after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his ally, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, had talked Prigozhin out of continuing toward the capital. Putin then said he would let Prigozhin and Wagner troops move to Belarus, despite calling Prigozhin a traitor and vowing severe punishment. Prigozhin’s public appearance in Belarus and Wagner’s movements in recent days show that at least for now, the deal between Prigozhin and the Kremlin appears to be holding.

The road to Moscow: A visual timeline of Wagner’s rebellion

The independent monitoring project Hajun, which tracks military movements in Belarus, said the video was probably recorded Tuesday evening. A Prigozhin-linked private jet was spotted arriving in Belarus at about 11 a.m. Tuesday to a military airfield, Hajun reported.

In the past week, Hajun has identified eight large convoys that moved from the Russian border toward a newly set up tent camp near the Belarusian village of Tsel, a site believed to be Wagner’s new base. The Belarusian Defense Ministry last week posted a video showing Wagner fighters training the country’s forces at a base near Tsel. Satellite imagery of the tent camp also showed the arrival of large convoys over the weekend.

“We were surprised by the amount of construction equipment; we see civilian vehicles and excavators and bulldozers,” Ruslan Leviev, a military analyst with the Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent monitoring group specializing in Russian military movements, said in a daily briefing. “So far, it looks like [Wagner is] moving all its property from Russian-controlled territory, probably to not let it be seized.”

Columns ranged in size between 50 and 150 vehicles, Hajun said, and included pickup trucks, vans and military trucks. Heavy fighting equipment has been notably absent in the convoys, further evidence that the group was forced to return a significant part of its arsenal to the Russian Defense Ministry.

As of Tuesday, Hajun estimated there were at least 2,000 Wagner fighters and more than 500 pieces of equipment in Belarus.

Wagner leader Prigozhin in Belarus is bad news for pretty much everybody

“It was decided that we would be here in Belarus for some time,” Prigozhin said in the video. “During this time, we will turn them, and I am sure, into the second army in the world. And if necessary, we’ll stand up for them.

“And then we prepare, level up and set off on a new path to Africa,” he added. “But perhaps we will return to the war in Ukraine at the moment when we are sure that we will not be forced to disgrace ourselves and our experience.”

Prigozhin-linked groups in Africa, where Wagner has a military and commercial presence in over a dozen countries, said earlier this week that the mogul had sold some of his business on the continent to pay salaries to his fighters.

“We continue to rotate instructors in the Central African Republic,” said Alexander Ivanov, the head of a shadowy group called the Commonwealth of Officers for International Security, which manages Russian military instructors working in CAR, one of Prigozhin’s main African operations, in a Telegram post. “I am sending a new group of highly qualified professionals with extensive experience in the Wagner private military company, who will be incredibly useful for training the CAR security forces … and for ensuring the security of this country.”

Ivanov said he had spoken to Prigozhin and “confirmed that some of the African assets were indeed sold, but on the other hand, all the salaries of the fighters were paid in full. Despite the change in the structure of the African business, [Prigozhin] once again confirmed that he intends not to curtail but to expand his presence in Africa.”

Prigozhin’s rebellion raises questions about Wagner’s African footprint

Shortly after the mutiny, Putin admitted that Wagner was fully sponsored by the Russian state and that the group’s operations cost billions of dollars, despite years of denials that Moscow had anything to do with mercenary activity. It’s unclear whether Prigozhin will continue to receive any funding through contracts awarded by the Russian state.

Wagner’s main training camp in the village of Molkino, in Russia’s southern Krasnodar region, will be shut down on July 30, Telegram channels close to mercenaries reported Monday. A short clip shared by the Wagner Unloading channel showed a group of masked men in fatigues taking down the flags of Russia and Wagner.

“The base ceases to exist. Wagner is moving to a new location,” one of the people in the video said. The flags seem to have reappeared in the Wednesday video, as after his three-minute speech Prigozhin passed on a large piece of fabric with Wagner’s symbol to a fighter.

The group’s reputed founder and operational leader, identified by Hajun as Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian army officer whose nom de guerre Wagner gave the company its name, also made a short appearance in the clip.

“This is not the end. This is just the beginning of the biggest job in the world,” Utkin screamed before adding in English. “Welcome to hell!”

Sarah Cahlan in Washington contributed to this report.

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