Yevgeny Prigozhin’s deal with President Putin forged in the wake of the failed rebellion earlier this summer may have already disintegrated, after reports emerged that Wagner mercenaries are withdrawing from Belarus and heading back to Russia.

Remind me, what was the deal?

After Wagner’s aborted march on Moscow at the end of June, Prigozhin called off the fledgling coup after an intervention by Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko.

He agreed to host Wagner in his country and in line with the agreement, and the mercenaries were ordered to return to their field camps, and all charges against Prigozhin were dropped, facilitating his relocation to Belarus.

What’s the latest?

According to Russian sources, Wagner’s mercenaries in Belarus are withdrawing back to Russian territory by bus in batches of 500-600.

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The first stage of the withdrawal has reportedly already been completed and the second stage will begin after Aug. 13.

One Russian milblogger wrote: “Officially, this is being described as sending fighters on vacation. However, no one talks about returning to Belarus.

“The fighters are only ordered to stay in touch with Wagner authorities for new orders which can come at any time.”

There has not yet currently been independent visual confirmation that Wagner forces are withdrawing from Belarus.

Was this part of the plan?

No. When Prigozhin welcomed some of his fighters as they arrived in Belarus on July 20, he told them they would be there “for some time.”

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He added that they wouldn’t be returning to Ukraine anytime soon and should instead prepare for operations in Africa.

There was no mention of returning to Russia so soon.

What’s going on?

According to the same Russian source, it’s all about money – Lukashenko was under the impression that Russia would be funding Wagner’s stay in Belarus and he has refused to pay for it out of his own pocket.

But Western analysts suggest something bigger might be going on.

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In its daily assessment on Aug. 9, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), said: “Speculations about the Wagner Group's withdrawal from Belarus suggest that aspects of the deal between [Putin] and [Prigozhin] following Wagner's armed rebellion on June 24 have collapsed.

“The likely collapse of aspects of the Wagner-Putin-Lukashenko deal indicates that Putin has failed to decisively resolve issues posed by Prigozhin and Wagner following Wagner's June 24 rebellion.”

It adds that Putin is aiming to “definitively separate Prigozhin from Wagner” as he is “likely still concerned about the threat that Prigozhin poses to his long-term goals.”

The ISW then theorizes that Putin may have facilitated Wagner’s return to Russia “so that he can more easily facilitate” its “subordination to the Russian [Ministry of Defense] or disband the organization entirely.”

Could Putin do that?

It might be tricky – the other player in all this is Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu who is reportedly determined to take over Wagner’s extensive military operations in Africa.

If he does, he will seriously annoy those in Wagner who make a lot of money from these endeavors at a time when Putin is trying to keep them onside and convince them to join Russia’s regular armed forces.

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Either way, it looks like a tricky situation for Putin just got even trickier.

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