Following Yevgeny Prigozhin’s abortive “march for justice” towards the Russian capital last weekend, President Lukashenko of Belarus intervened and apparently offered the Wagner boss safe sanctuary in exile.
Vladimir Putin was evidently furious that his old protégé could turn against him and is unlikely to forgive or forget Prigozhin’s apparent attempted coup.
Under normal circumstances one might have expected Prigozhin’s prospects to be limited, but Mr Putin will not want to risk turning him into a martyr, so while the dust settles on last weekend’s events, Mr Lukashenko has provided an invaluable short-term solution.
However, Prigozhin is potentially a very dangerous animal, so Mr Lukashenko will want to proceed with caution.
Although the offer of exile in Belarus might have strengthened 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.
This has led to a raft of conspiracy theories as to Prigozhin’s actual role in Belarus.
In context, notwithstanding Prigozhin’s apparent betrayal, Mr Putin still needs mercenary fighters; they have proved vital to Russian battlefield success.
However, he will want to “weed out” those fighters loyal to Prigozhin and bring the remainder under closer control of the Russian ministry of defence to minimise the threat of a further coup.
Offering fighters the opportunity to join Prigozhin in Belarus is a relatively simple way to identify those loyal to the mercenary leader, easing the process of purging Prigozhin loyalists.
Satellite imagery of extensive tented camps being erected suggest that several thousand Wagner fighters might relocate to Belarus.
Although Prigozhin is probably grateful for the opportunity afforded him by Lukashenko, he must also be aware that Putin has broader ambitions to subjugate Belarus and there is potential that Prigozhin could prove a useful asset for Putin when required – perhaps as a way back into the Moscow fold.
However, mindful that most Belarusians want nothing to do with the war in Ukraine, and are likely to be increasingly suspicious of Lukashenko’s developing partnership with Putin, Prigozhin’s activities in Belarus are likely to be relatively low-key, at least in the short term.
It is possible that Putin, having expunged the direct threat posed by Prigozhin, will coerce him into mounting operations against the Ukrainian capital Kyiv from Belarus territory.
Kyiv is significantly closer to Belarus than Russia, which would provide a significant logistical advantage to the attacking force.
However, although Lukashenko is a puppet of the Putin regime, he also leads a democratic country and will be keen to avoid a repeat of the riots that threatened to unseat him after the last election.
If Lukashenko was to provide a launchpad for mercenary fighters to attack its neighbour this might be seen as an unprovoked escalation and drag Belarus into the war – something Lukashenko will be keen to avoid.
But, mindful that many of the Wagner fighters are battle-hardened veterans of the urban fight for Bakhmut, that might form a potent threat to Kyiv – indeed, reports suggest that Ukraine is already bolstering its defences against a potential threat from the north.
The extraordinary events of last weekend have left more questions than answers, and we simply do not know exactly what will happen next.
But, the chess pieces have been moved around the board, creating new threats and opportunities, which will become more apparent over the coming days and weeks.