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Vladimir Putin has offered has Wagner fighters three choices – but he can’t afford to lose them from the Ukraine war | World News

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President Putin is directing a major “damage limitation” exercise in Russia to re-impose his authority and purge those responsible for the potential coup attempt, following Yevgeny Prigozhin’s abortive “march for justice” towards the Russian capital last weekend.

But what of Prigozhin? Is he a dead man walking, or is his exile to Belarus simply an opportunity for Russia to bolster its military capability there?

Putin has control over Russian oligarchs since he has influence over the contracts upon which they rely for their wealth, thus creating a dependency culture and minimising the risks of any uprising. Prigozhin is a successful Russian oligarch who has exploited a close friendship with Putin to mutual benefit.

No wonder then that Putin was visibly angered that one of his trusted friends apparently mounted a coup attempt, describing it as a betrayal. Putin’s number one priority is maintaining his grip on power.

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Having been betrayed, most analysts would have expected Putin to exact revenge – very publicly – to deter any other challenges to his authority.

It appears that Prigozhin has been offered safe passage to exile in Belarus, is this an interim measure and is Prigozhin a “dead man walking”?

Notwithstanding Putin’s anger at Prigozhin’s apparent betrayal, Russia needs mercenary military support to deliver battlefield success in Ukraine.

The Wagner Group – with Prigozhin at the helm – seized Bakhmut to deliver a rare Russian military success, with Prigozhin claiming his fighters were the best army in the world.

Putin cannot afford to let his most seasoned and experienced fighters to simply walk away from the Ukraine war, so in the near term he has offered three choices to the Wagner mercenaries: join the Russian Army by 1 July (which risks a civil war as happened in Sudan recently); go home (and lose their experience and expertise); or join Prigozhin in Belarus (which cleanses the Russians of those loyal to Prigozhin).

Clearly, none of these choices maintains Russia’s mercenary capability.

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Vladimir Putin spoke to troops and members of the security services this week

However, once the dust has settled and having separated Prigozhin (and his acolytes) from the organisation, it is very likely that a re-branded and smaller mercenary group will rise from the ashes of Wagner, cleansed of the mutinous elements, and subordinate to the Russian MoD.

Whether Prigozhin will maintain control of his sprawling business empire, and his global mercenary group (outside Ukraine) is unclear, but having had his fingers burnt by Prigozhin, it seems very unlikely that Putin will trust him again.

Indeed, Kremlin-affiliated businessmen may already be acquiring Prigozhin’s domestic media empire, likely as part of an ongoing effort to destroy his reputation in Russia.

It also appears that the Russian presidential administration will have direct control over Prigozhin’s media assets.

Furthermore, although the offer of exile in Belarus might have strengthened President Lukashenko’s hand with Putin, Prigozhin’s presence in his country presents a significant long-term risk if accompanied by a significant number of battle-hardened Wagner fighters.

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How has Wagner impacted the war in Ukraine?

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Putin will not want to make Prigozhin a martyr, so he is probably safe for now. But once Putin has re-structured and rebranded the mercenary capability, isolated Prigozhin from his business empire, and reduced his influence and authority, Prigozhin’s future prospects might be rather more precarious. After all, Kremlin detractors have a nasty habit of falling out of high-rise hotel windows and meeting untimely ends.

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But Lukashenko must also be concerned – he has offered sanctuary to a dangerous animal, and if Prigozhin maintains even part of his mercenary empire in exile in Belarus, history might repeat itself and Lukashenko will be less well protected than Putin.

Prigozhin was a hugely influential and successful Russian oligarch; however, Putin is used to making sacrifices in his grand-strategic game of international chess, and Prigozhin has now become a disposable pawn that looks likely to be sacrificed to save the Putin King.

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