A view of the Belarusian army camp near Tsel village, about 90 kilometers (about 55 miles) southeast of Minsk, Belarus, Friday, July 7, 2023. AP
Maj. Gen. Leonid Kosinsky, an assistant to Belarus’ defense minister, told international reporters that Wagner troops could use the former Belarusian army camp near Tsel, about 90 kilometers (about 55 miles) southeast of Minsk.
Journalists were shown rows of empty tents that Kosinsky said could accommodate up to 5,000 troops at the camp in the Asipovichy district that was used by the Belarusian army before it was handed over to the territorial defense forces.
Kosinsky said Wagner representatives haven't yet inspected the camp to see whether it meets their needs. “When the Wagner Group makes a final decision on whether to deploy to Belarus or not, they will see where and how to deploy,” he told reporters.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday that mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is in Russia and his troops so far have remained at their home camps, raising new questions about the deal that ended the extraordinary challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Much about the the agreement, which was brokered by Lukashenko, remains murky, and it was not clear if the Wagner chief’s presence in Russia would violate the deal, which allowed Prigozhin and his mercenaries to move to Belarus in exchange for ending the rebellion and a promise of amnesty.
Lukashenko’s claim could not be independently verified, but Russian media have reported Prigozhin was recently seen at his offices in Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday again shrugged off questions about Prigozhin's whereabouts and refused to comment on whether his presence in Russia would violate the deal.
The Belarusian president dismissed suggestions that the mercenaries could attack Ukraine from Belarusian territory, which Russian troops used as a staging ground ahead of their invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
During their revolt that lasted less than 24 hours, Prigozhin’s mercenaries quickly swept through the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and captured the military headquarters there without firing a shot before driving to within about 200 kilometers (125 miles) of the Russian capital. Prigozhin described it as a “march of justice” to oust his longtime foes — Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the military’s general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, whose handling of the war in Ukraine he criticized.
The Wagner fighters faced little resistance and downed at least six military helicopters and a command post aircraft, killing at least 10 airmen. When the deal was struck, the Wagner chief ordered his troops to return to their camps.
The abortive rebellion represented the biggest threat to Putin in his more than two decades in power, exposing his weakness and eroding the Kremlin’s authority.