The greatest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades in power fizzled out after the rebellious mercenary commander who ordered his troops to march on Moscow abruptly reached a deal with the Kremlin to go into exile and sounded the retreat.
The brief revolt, though, exposed vulnerabilities among Russian government forces, with Wagner Group soldiers under the command of Yevgeny Prigozhin able to move unimpeded into the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and advance hundreds of kilometres (miles) toward Moscow. The Russian military scrambled to defend Russia’s capital.
Under the deal announced Saturday by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Prigozhin will go to neighbouring Belarus, which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Charges against him of mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped.
The government also said it would not prosecute Wagner fighters who took part, while those who did not join in were to be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry. Prigozhin ordered his troops back to their field camps in Ukraine, where they have been fighting alongside Russian regular soldiers.
By Sunday morning there were still no reports of Prigozhin arriving in Belarus. Many other questions remained unanswered, including whether Prigozhin would be joined in exile by any of Wagner’s troops and what role, if any, he might have there.
Prigozhin, who sent out a series of audio and video updates during his revolt, has gone silent since the Kremlin announced that the deal had been brokered for him to end his march and leave Russia.
Video taken by The Associated Press in Rostov-on-Don showed people cheering Wagner troops as they departed. Some ran to shake hands with Prigozhin, who was riding in an SUV. The regional governor later said that all of the troops had left the city.
Putin had vowed earlier to punish those behind the armed uprising led by his onetime protege. In a televised speech to the nation, he called the rebellion a “betrayal” and “treason.”
In allowing Prigozhin and his forces to go free, Peskov said, Putin’s “highest goal” was “to avoid bloodshed and internal confrontation with unpredictable results.”
The risk for Putin is whether he will be seen as weak, analysts said.
“Putin has been diminished for all time by this affair,” former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said on CNN.
Early Saturday, Prigozhin’s private army appeared to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city 660 miles (over 1,000 kilometres) south of Moscow, which runs Russian operations in Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.
Moscow braced for the arrival of the Wagner forces by erecting checkpoints with armoured vehicles and troops on the city’s southern edge. About 3,000 Chechen soldiers were pulled from fighting in Ukraine and rushed there early Saturday, state television in Chechnya reported. Russian troops armed with machine guns put up checkpoints on Moscow’s southern outskirts. Crews dug up sections of highways to slow the march.
Wagner troops advanced to just 200 kilometres (120 miles) from Moscow, according to Prigozhin. But after the deal was struck, Prigozhin announced that he had decided to retreat to avoid “shedding Russian blood.”
A U.S.-based think tank argued that Prigozhin’s rebellion “exposed severe weaknesses” in the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense.
The Institute for the Study of War said that the Kremlin struggled to put up a coherent response to the rebellion, and that one reason was likely the impact of heavy Russian losses in Ukraine.
“Wagner likely could have reached the outskirts of Moscow if Prigozhin chose to order them to do so,” the institute said.
On Sunday morning some restrictions were still in place along the main highway between Moscow and Rostov-on-Don though traffic restrictions were gradually being lifted in other places.
Prigozhin had demanded the ouster of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom Prigozhin has long criticized in withering terms for his conduct of the 16-month-long war in Ukraine.
If Putin were to agree to Shoigu’s ouster, it could be politically damaging for the president after he branded Prigozhin a backstabbing traitor.
The U.S. had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time. That conflicts with Prigozhin’s claim that his rebellion was a response to an attack on his camps in Ukraine on Friday by the Russian military.
In announcing the rebellion, Prigozhin accused Russian forces of targeting the Wagner camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery. He alleged that Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, ordered the attacks following a meeting with Shoigu in which they decided to destroy the military contractor.
The Defense Ministry denied attacking the camps.
Congressional leaders were briefed on the Wagner buildup earlier last week, a person familiar with the matter said. The person was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity. The U.S. intelligence briefing was first reported by CNN.
A possible motivation for Prigozhin’s rebellion was the Russian Defense Ministry’s demand, which Putin backed, that private companies sign contracts with it by July 1. Prigozhin had refused to do it.
“It may well be that he struck now because he saw that deadline as a danger to his control of his troops,” Herbst wrote in an article for the Atlantic Council.
The Institute for the Study of War said the agreement that ended the crisis “will very likely eliminate Wagner Group as a Prigozhin-led independent actor in its current form, although elements of the organization may endure under existing and new capacities.”
Russian media reported that several helicopters and a military communications plane were downed by Wagner troops. Russia’s Defense Ministry has not commented.
Wagner troops and equipment also were in Lipetsk province, about 360 kilometres (225 miles) south of Moscow.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin declared Monday a non-working day for most residents as part of the heightened security, a measure that remained in effect even after the retreat.
Ukrainians hoped the Russian infighting would create opportunities for their army to take back territory seized by Russian forces.
“These events will have been of great comfort to the Ukrainian government and the military,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Saturday, shortly before Prigozhin announced his retreat, that the march exposed weakness in the Kremlin and “showed all Russian bandits, mercenaries, oligarchs” that it is easy to capture Russian cities “and, probably, arsenals.”
The Kremlin’s offer of amnesty to Prigozhin was negotiated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which might have raised his stature in his relationship with Putin.
The Institute for the Study of War wrote that the Belarusian leader’s role was “humiliating to Putin and may have secured Lukashenko other benefits.”
Wagner troops have played a crucial role in the Ukraine war, capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut, an area where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place. But Prigozhin has increasingly criticized the military brass, accusing it of incompetence and of starving his troops of munitions.
The 62-year-old Prigozhin, a former convict, has longstanding ties to Putin and won lucrative Kremlin catering contracts that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.”
He and a dozen other Russian nationals were charged in the United States with operating a covert social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord ahead of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory. Wagner has sent military contractors to Libya, Syria and several African countries, as well as Ukraine.
Associated Press writers Danica Kirka in London, and Nomaan Merchant in Washington, contributed.
Banner image via The Associated Press