Rebel Russian mercenaries return to base under deal ending advance on Moscow

Published June 25, 2023
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group’s pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24. — Reuters
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group’s pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24. — Reuters
Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to base, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24. — Reuters
Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to base, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24. — Reuters

Heavily armed Russian mercenaries withdrew from the southern Russian city of Rostov overnight under a deal that defused an unprecedented challenge to the authority of President Vladimir Putin and halted their rapid advance on Moscow.

Fighters of the Wagner group returned to their bases in return for guarantees for their safety and the leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, will move to Belarus, according to the agreement mediated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

However, the aborted mutiny raises big questions about Putin’s grip on a country he has ruled with an iron hand for more than two decades. Italy’s foreign minister said it had shattered the “myth” of Russian unity.

Prigozhin, 62, a former Putin ally whose forces have fought the bloodiest battles of the 16-month war in Ukraine, said his decision to advance on Moscow was intended to remove corrupt and incompetent Russian commanders he blames for botching the war.

He was seen leaving the district military headquarters in Rostov — hundreds of miles south of Moscow — late on Saturday in a sport utility vehicle. His whereabouts on Sunday were not immediately clear.

Videos shared on social media from Rostov overnight purportedly showed the mercenaries withdrawing from the city in a convoy of armoured vehicles, tanks and coaches to the sound of cheers, chants of “Wagner” and celebratory gunfire from local residents.

Reuters was able to verify the location of the video but not the date that it was filmed.

“Take care of yourselves,” shouted one woman.

The show of support for Wagner’s short-lived insurrection will alarm the authorities in a country which has become increasingly intolerant of any public criticism of Putin and his rule.

Moscow was calm on Sunday, with the Red Square closed but otherwise little evidence of increased security in the streets. Monday has been declared a non-working day to allow time for things to settle.

The capital had told residents to stay indoors and deployed soldiers in preparation for the arrival of the mercenaries, who appeared to meet little pushback from the regular armed forces.

Chechen special forces who deployed to the Rostov region to resist the mercenaries’ advance were also withdrawing back to where they had been fighting in Ukraine, commander Apty Alaudinov said in a video published on Telegram.

After capturing Rostov — the main rear logistical hub for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the mercenaries had raced hundreds of miles north in what Prigozhin called a “march for justice”, transporting tanks and armoured trucks and smashing through barricades set up to stop them, before the deal to withdraw was reached.

Prigozhin Belarus exile

Under the deal, brokered late on Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a criminal case opened against Prigozhin for armed mutiny would be dropped, Prigozhin would move to Belarus, and Wagner fighters who rallied to his cause would face no action, in recognition of their previous service to Russia.

Peskov said Lukashenko had offered to mediate, with Putin’s approval, because he had known Prigozhin personally for around 20 years.

In a televised address during Saturday’s drama, Putin said the rebellion put Russia’s very existence under threat.

“We are fighting for the lives and security of our people, for our sovereignty and independence, for the right to remain Russia, a state with a thousand-year history,” Putin said, vowing punishment for those behind “an armed insurrection” and drawing parallels with the chaos of 1917 that had led to the Bolshevik revolution.

Peskov declined to say whether any concessions were made to Prigozhin, other than guarantees of safety for him — something he said Putin gave his word to vouch for — and for Prigozhin’s men, to persuade him to withdraw all his forces.

Prigozhin railed for months against the military’s top brass, especially Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, accusing them of incompetence and of withholding ammunition from his fighters as they battled to take Bakhmut in Ukraine.

Led by Prigozhin, a former convict whose forces include thousands of ex-prisoners recruited from Russian jails, Wagner has grown into a sprawling international business with mining interests and fighters in Africa and the Middle East.

This month, he defied orders to sign a contract placing his troops under the command of the Defence Ministry. He launched the rebellion on Friday after alleging that the military had killed many of his fighters in an air strike. The Defence Ministry denied this.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said in an interview with Italian newspaper Il Messaggero published on Sunday that Putin had created the conditions for Saturday’s insurrection by allowing Prigozhin over many years to build up such a formidable private army.

“The myth of the unity of Putin’s Russia is over. This internal escalation divides the Russian military deployment. It’s the inevitable outcome when you support and finance a legion of mercenaries,” Tarjani said.

“One thing is certain: the Russian front is weaker than yesterday. I hope that peace will now be closer. We wait to see Russia’s next moves in Ukraine”.

The revolt came just weeks into the start of Ukraine’s strongest counteroffensive drive since Moscow’s invasion in February last year.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Saturday the developments, which sparked a flurry of high-level calls between Western leaders, exposed turmoil at the heart of Russia.

“Simply complete chaos,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.

Russian forces shelled the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, killing one civilian man, the local governor said on Sunday.

‘Early signs of revolt’

While the Kremlin appeared to have been caught on the back foot, US spy agencies picked up signs days ago that Prigozhin was planning to act, US media reported.

They began tracking indications that Prigozhin and his mercenary force intended to move against the military leadership in mid-June, the Washington Post said, adding US spy agencies believed Putin was informed the Wagner chief was plotting his rebellion at least a day before it happened.

The United States and its allies publicly stayed on the sidelines as officials waited to see how the revolt would play out.

US President Joe Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany and Britain amid concerns that Putin’s control over the nuclear-armed country could be slipping.

Moscow issued a stiff warning to the United States and allies to stay back.

“The rebellion plays into the hands of Russia’s external enemies,” the foreign ministry said.

Before Prigozhin’s climbdown, Russian regular forces had launched what one regional governor called a “counter-terrorist operation” to halt the Wagner advance northwards up a main highway towards Moscow.

In the capital, the mayor urged Muscovites to stay indoors and declared Monday a day off work.

Security was tightened in the city centre, with armed men in flak jackets guarding the parliament building and Red Square closed off to the public.

 A police car is seen behind a barrier on the Red Square in central Moscow, Russia on June 24. — Reuters
A police car is seen behind a barrier on the Red Square in central Moscow, Russia on June 24. — Reuters

“I don’t know how to react. In any case it’s very sad this is happening,” 35-year-old Yelena told AFP, declining to give her last name.

All road traffic restrictions that had been imposed in Rostov, Lipetsk and other regions during the crisis have been lifted, state-run TASS reported, citing the federal road agency.

The measures came after Prigozhin announced his troops had taken control of the military command centre and airbase in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, the nerve centre of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine.

Russia’s Federal Road Agency urged residents of the Moscow region to refrain from travelling along the M-4 “Don” major expressway until 10am (7am GMT).

The agency had said earlier in the day on the Telegram messaging app, in a post now deleted, that traffic restrictions on the highway in the Moscow and Tula regions remained.

‘A blow to Russia’

Responding to the challenge in a televised address, Putin accused Prigozhin of a “stab in the back” that posed a threat to Russia’s very survival.

“Any internal turmoil is a deadly threat to our statehood and to us as a nation. This is a blow to Russia and to our people,” Putin said, demanding national unity.

“Extravagant ambitions and personal interests led to treason,” Putin said, referring to Prigozhin, who began building his power base as a catering contractor.

As the insurrection force headed north through Voronezh and Lipetsk towards Moscow, the capital’s mayor announced that “anti-terrorist” measures were being taken.

 People gather in a street as fighters of Wagner private mercenary group are deployed near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russi on June 24. —  Reuters
People gather in a street as fighters of Wagner private mercenary group are deployed near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russi on June 24. — Reuters

Critical facilities were “under reinforced protection”, TASS reported, citing a law enforcement source.

While Prigozhin’s outfit fought at the forefront of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine, he repeatedly blamed Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, for his fighters’ deaths.

Muscovites made uneasy by revolt, Ukrainians pleased

Muscovites on Saturday expressed unease or dismissed as political theatre a standoff pitting the Kremlin against Wagner mercenaries who had vowed to descend on the capital in a “march of justice” denouncing the conduct of the war in Ukraine.

Ukrainians, on the other hand, were clearly satisfied, sometimes gleeful, at the prospect of a split in Russian ranks 16 months after the Kremlin’s troops invaded their country.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, had declared that a “counter-terrorism regime” was in force, before the leader of the Wagner private militia announced that his fighters would turn back to avoid bloodshed.

Prigozhin had said he wanted to oust the army’s top brass and “restore justice”, while Putin had promised to crush the mutiny.

One Moscow resident who gave his name as Nikolai — declining like others to give his surname — watched the military take up positions to protect the city.

“It’s frightening of course — you sit at home thinking about what might happen,” he told Reuters. “It’s disturbing, both for you and your loved ones.”

Some residents found it hard to grasp the scale of events.

“It’s really tough news, really unexpected. I’ve just come back from university. I’ve just done my last exam — and the news was really unexpected as I was prepping (for the exam) last night,” said Vladimir, a student.

“I don’t really know how to react. I haven’t really got my head around it yet.”

In Kyiv’s Independence Square — packed with residents enjoying a stroll — Natalia Tanich, 48, acknowledged a certain pleasure in watching the Russian standoff.

“I enjoy what is happening in Russia. The inevitable conflict between Prigozhin and Putin was expected,” she said. “I don’t know what may come out of it. But I wish for them to shoot each other and die.”

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city subjected to frequent shelling since the invasion, Ivan said the confrontation was a consequence of volatile politics and the protracted conflict.

“They started the war and now they are getting it back. The harder you compress a spring, the harder it comes back,” he said.

“The situation was compressed to such an extent in Russia that it became hopeless. I consider what happened a natural event. It will influence the war but I think it will not be over in a day. We will have to endure a bit.”

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