Vladimir V. Putin is known for his tight control of the news media in Russia. His ally, Wagner military group founder Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, is the owner of a conservative media outlet and a flamboyant showman on social media.
But an unlikely figure emerged with a public relations triumph after Mr. Prigozhin: longtime dictator of Belarus, a neighboring country that is in Moscow's orbit.
The Belarusian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, is largely seen as a dutiful satrap of the Kremlin. But on Sunday, he took credit for brokering a deal between Mr Putin and Mr Prigozhin, avoiding a scenario the Russian leader has compared to civil war after the 1917 Revolution.
Now Mr. Lukashenko, an international pariah, is trying to use his PR triumph to polish his credentials as a credible statesman, mediator — and most importantly, loyal ally to Mr. Putin.
Late Saturday night, as fears grew over a potential clash between Wagner's troops, who were within 125 miles of Moscow, and Russian troops, Mr. Lukashenko issued an announcement: The President of Belarus has found “a completely profitable and acceptable option for resolving the situation.”
Shortly thereafter, Master Prigozhin announced that his column of warriors who had covered some 500 miles from southern Russia was turning around and heading home.
As part of the deal, the criminal case opened against Prigozhin for organizing an armed uprising will be dropped, Wagner's troops will not be tried and Prigozhin will leave Russia for Belarus, a Kremlin spokesman said. His whereabouts on Sunday are unknown.
What, if any, promises were made on behalf of the Kremlin, Wagner or Mr Lukashenko remains unclear. But the state-controlled media Mr. Lukashenko has quickly shifted to high positions to portray his efforts to defuse the conflict as a testament to statesmanship.
State news agency Belta reported that early on Saturday – as Putin was facing “the most acute phase of the situation in Russia” – he telephoned his Belarusian counterpart in Minsk.
Putin “doubted about the possibility of negotiations and doubted whether Yevgeny Prigozhin would pick up the phone, because at that time he did not speak to anyone,” a Belarusian government propagandist, Vadim Gigin, told pro-Kremlin media on Sunday, in an interview covered widely by Belta.
But Mr Putin agreed to mediation, and when “the president of Belarus called, Yevgeny Prigozhin immediately picked up the phone,” said Mr Gigin, who was once sanctioned by the European Union for “supporting and justifying the suppression of the democratic opposition and civil society.”
The conversation between Mr Lukashenko and Mr Prigozhin “was very difficult,” said Mr Gigin, who this month became director of the Belarusian National Library. “They immediately spouted vulgar things that would make any mother cry. The conversation was tough, and as I was told, masculine.
Despite other possible explanations for why Mr Prigozhin gave up on his “march for justice” to Moscow, some offer minimal credit to Mr Lukashenko, But the Belarusian media machine has touted its role as a power broker, which is rare. role reversal at a time when the dictator became heavily dependent on Russia.
“Putin lost because he showed how weak the system is, that he can be easily challenged,” said Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarusian diplomat and analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Prigozhin was defiant, he attacked, he was very brave and then he backed away, looking like a loser. Only Lukashenko wins the points — first in the eyes of Putin, in the eyes of the international community as a mediator or negotiator, and as a possible guarantor of a deal.”
Mr Lukashenko has managed to hold on to power for 29 years, but it has come at a cost. He has increasingly allowed Belarus to become a vassal state of Russia, especially after winning Moscow's support in 2020, when he violently crushed democracy movements that challenged his claims that he had won elections by a landslide.
Depending on Moscow not only for political support but also for economic survival, Belarus allowed Putin to use it as a staging ground for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and as a repository for Russian tactical nuclear weapons.
Details have also emerged that Belarusians have participated in the Russian practice of taking children out of Russian-occupied Ukraine and taking them to so-called summer camps. The International Criminal Court has issued warrants against Putin and his children's rights commissioner, and Ukrainian prosecutors are reviewing evidence that the children were taken to three camps in Belarus, including at least one belonging to a state-owned company.
Opposition leaders believe that Putin's ambitions are not limited to the territory of Ukraine. Eventually, they predicted, he would try to strengthen his control over Belarus.
With his reported mediation in the Wagner crisis, Mr. Lukashenko may hope to reclaim some of his rapidly eroding sovereignty, and stem fears of Belarus being swallowed up by its larger neighbour, said Dmitri Avosha, founder of the Belarusian Tribuna website.
“Lukashenko is only helping Putin in its purest form, and helping himself solve the problems of the occupation,” he said.
This isn't the first time Mr. Lukashenko also tried to claim to be a mediator.
He did so in 2014 and 2015, after previous Russian incursions into Ukraine, when he launched a covert invasion of the eastern Donbas region. He tried again shortly after the full-scale invasion, dragging delegations from Moscow and Kyiv to the southeastern city of Gomel, but talks quickly fizzled out.
Many observers are now raising questions about whether Prigozhin will be safe from threats of kidnapping or assassination in Belarus, given the anger Putin has publicly expressed at him.
Even before 2020, as Lukashenko was increasingly becoming a puppet of Putin, Russian special services would occasionally enter Belarusian territory to arrest his adversaries, said Slunkin, an analyst at the European Council. “And now, they will only do what they want.”
However the balance of power between Mr Lukashenko and Mr Putin may have shifted now, both still need each other to stay in power.
“They are conjoined twins,” said Pavel Latushka, a former Belarusian diplomat and minister who is now in exile. “They can't live without each other. It's one body, two heads. The fall of one means the political death of the other.”