Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced a deal late Saturday evening, Wagner’s chief mercenary, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was reported to have departed for Belarus in exchange for a chance to be spared prosecution after a failed rebellion in which his troops charged towards Moscow.
The announcement, reported by the Tass news agency, came shortly after the warlord’s bitterness Prigozin announced that his men were turning back from Moscow to avoid a devastating civil conflict. In a voice recording posted on his Telegram channel, Prigozhin said his troops would turn back after advancing within 200 kilometers of the capital.
It was the culmination of an extraordinary day, in which Putin had accused the Wagner group of « treason » and claimed that their uprising risked plunging Russia into civil war.
Prigozhin, angered by the Kremlin’s handling of the war in Ukraine, announced on Saturday that his mercenaries had seized the main southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, a logistics hub for Putin’s war, and were threatening to move towards Moscow. Wagner’s forces also appeared to be well established in the city of Voronezh, 500 kilometers south of the capital.
After a day of heightened military tensions – with shells fired in Voronezh and Chechen fighters sent to confront Wagner in Rostov – the uprising suddenly fizzled out in the evening. Ultimately, Moscow seemed an improbably ambitious target for Prigozhin and Russian regular forces seemed unable to do much to counter Prigozhin in the south.
Prigozhin said he was withdrawing from the capital to avoid a bloodbath.
« During this time we have not shed a single drop of our fighters’ blood, » he said. « By taking responsibility for the fact that Russian blood will be shed – on the one hand – we will turn our columns and go in the opposite direction towards the fields, according to plan, » he said.
As Wagner progressed through the day, the mayor of Moscow had declared an « anti-terrorist operation » and mechanical diggers were digging ditches in the main highway that ran south to the capital to stop Prigozhin’s men. Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has urged Russians to pray for Putin.
It was unclear what Prigozhin meant by returning his men to the camps and whether Wagner intended to hold his southern positions in Rostov and Voronezh. Significantly, the governor of the Rostov region, Vasily Golubev, said the jury was still out on Prigozhin’s pledge to withdraw his troops. “We suggest waiting for the actions and commenting on them, not the words.” Later in the evening, footage appeared on social media showing Wagner withdrawing from Rostov, accompanied by chants of support from the local population.
Moments before Prigozhin’s about-face, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko released a statement saying he had held all-day talks with the outspoken oligarch, a former restaurateur dubbed « Putin’s chef » due to his contracts to deliver food and drinks in the Kremlin.
« As a result, they have come to agreements on the inadmissibility of unleashing a bloody massacre on the territory of Russia, » the message from Lukashenko’s office read.
« Evgeny Prigozhin has accepted the proposal of the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to stop the movement of the Wagner company’s armed personnel within Russia and to take further steps to de-escalate tensions. »
“At present, there is a completely constructive and acceptable option to resolve the situation, with safety guarantees for PMC Wagner fighters on the table,” the press release said. If there are such guarantees, they will be a bitter pill for Putin, who has promised to punish the rebels.
Given Peskov’s statement that Prigozhin will leave for Belarus, it now appears that Commander Wagner has failed to meet his basic demands.
For months he has been railing against the incompetence and corruption of the Russian high command and accusing Moscow of not giving him the support and equipment he needs. The biggest victory for Prigozhin would have been Putin agreeing to remove Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu or Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov – both characters who hate the mercenary chief – but such a huge concession from the Russian president was never likely. .
For its part, Ukraine stressed that the uprising showed that Russia was out of control.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky She said “Today the world saw that the masters of Russia control nothing. Nothing at all. Complete chaos. Complete absence of predictability”.
“The longer your troops stay on Ukrainian soil, the more devastation they will bring to Russia. The longer this person stays in the Kremlin, the more disasters there will be,” he added.