Russia says Wagner Group’s leader will move to Belarus after his rebellious march challenged Putin

The Kremlin says the head of the private Russian military company Wagner will move to neighbouring Belarus as part of deal to defuse rebellion tensions and the criminal case against him will be closed

June 25, 2023 12:33 am | Updated June 26, 2023 04:52 pm IST

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, Russia, on June 24, 2023.

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, Russia, on June 24, 2023. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The rebellious Russian mercenary commander who ordered his troops to march on Moscow before abruptly reversing course will move to neighbouring Belarus and not face prosecution, the Kremlin said Saturday, as part of a deal to defuse a crisis that represented the most significant challenge to President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades in power.

The charges against Yevgeny Prigozhin for mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped and the troops who joined him also will not be prosecuted, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced, and fighters from his Wagner Group who did not take part in the uprising will be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry.

Mr. Putin had vowed harsh consequences those behind the armed uprising led by his onetime protege, whose forces seized a key military facility in southern Russia before advancing on the capital. In a televised speech to the nation, Mr. Putin called the rebellion a “betrayal” and “treason.”

In allowing Mr. Prigozhin and his forces to go free, Mr. Peskov said Putin’s “highest goal” was “to avoid bloodshed and internal confrontation with unpredictable results.”

Also Read | The Wagner group’s march as it happened

Moscow had braced for the arrival of forces from the Wagner Group, a private army led by Yevgeny Prigozhin that has been fighting alongside regular Russian troops in Ukraine, by erecting checkpoints with armored vehicles and troops on the city's southern edge. Red Square was shut down, and the mayor urged motorists to stay off some roads.

But Mr. Prigozhin announced that while his men were just 200 km from Moscow, he decided to turn them back to avoid “shedding Russian blood.”

He did not say whether the Kremlin had responded to his demand to oust Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. There was no immediate comment from Mr. Putin's government.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Yevgeny Prigozhin’s troops who joined him in the uprising will not face prosecution and those who did not will be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry.

Belarus President intervenes

The announcement followed a statement from the office of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko saying he had negotiated a deal with Mr. Prigozhin after discussing the issue with Mr. Putin. Mr. Prigozhin agreed to halt the advance in a proposed settlement including security guarantees for Wagner troops, Mr. Lukashenko's office said, without elaborating.

After the deal was reached, Mr. Prigozhin said he was ordering his troops to halt their march on Moscow and retreat to field camps in Ukraine, where they have been fighting alongside Russian troops.

The Shoigu factor

Mr. Prigozhin has demanded the ouster of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, long the target of his withering criticism for his conduct of the war in Ukraine. On Friday, he accused forces under Shoigu’s command of attacking Wagner camps and killing “a huge number of our comrades.”

Mr. Prigozhin did not say whether the Kremlin had responded to his demand. Mr. Peskov said the issue could not have been discussed during the negotiations, which were conducted by the president of Belarus, and is the “exclusive prerogative of the commander in chief.”

Also Read | Putin vows to crush ‘armed mutiny’ as rebel Wagner chief tries to oust top military brass

If Mr. Putin were to agree to Mr. Shoigu’s ouster, it could be politically damaging for the president after he branded Prigozhin a backstabbing traitor.

Some observers speculated that Mr. Prigozhin could make concessions such as putting the Wagner Group under federal authority, or he could shift the force's activities back to Africa, where his mercenaries have been active in recent years.

Taking of Rostov-on-Don

Early Saturday, Mr. Prigozhin's private army appeared to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city over 1,000 km south of Moscow that runs Russian operations in Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.

A nighttime video from the city posted on Russian messaging app channels showed people cheering Wagner troops as they left Rostov-on-Don. Mr. Prigozhin was seen riding in one of the vehicles, and people greeted him and some ran to shake his hand as he lowered the window. The regional governor later said that all of the troops had left the city.

Wagner troops and equipment also were in Lipetsk province, about 360 km south of Moscow, where authorities were “taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the population," said regional Gov. Igor Artamonov, via Telegram.

Mayhem in Moscow

Authorities declared a “counterterrorist regime” in Moscow and its surrounding region, enhancing security and restricting some movement. On the southern outskirts, troops erected checkpoints, arranged sandbags and set up machine guns. Crews dug up sections of highways to slow the march.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin warned that traffic could be restricted in parts of the capital and declared Monday a non-working day for most residents.

The dramatic developments came exactly 16 months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s largest conflict since World War II, which has killed tens of thousands, displaced millions and reduced cities to rubble.

Short-lived hope for Ukraine

Ukrainians hoped the Russian infighting would create opportunities for its army to take back territory seized by Russian forces.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Moscow was suffering “full-scale weakness” and that Kyiv was protecting Europe from “the spread of Russian evil and chaos.”

The Federal Security Service, or FSB, called for Mr. Prigozhin’s arrest Friday night after he declared the armed rebellion.

Mr. Prigozhin said earlier Saturday that his fighters would not surrender, as “we do not want the country to live on in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”

“Regarding the betrayal of the motherland, the president was deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our homeland,” he said in an audio message on his Telegram channel.

Mr. Prigozhin said he had 25,000 troops under his command and urged the army not to offer resistance.

He posted video of himself at the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and claimed his forces had taken control of the airfield and other military facilities in the city without any deaths or even “a single gunshot.” Other videos on social media showed military vehicles, including tanks, on the streets.

Slamming the West

The rebellion came as Russia is “fighting the toughest battle for its future,” Mr. Putin said, with the West piling sanctions on Moscow and arming Ukraine.

“The entire military, economic and information machine of the West is waged against us,” Mr. Putin said.

State-controlled TV networks led their newscasts with Mr. Putin’s statement and reported the tense situation in Rostov-on-Don. Some showed social media videos of residents denouncing Wagner troops.

Broadcasters also carried statements from top officials and lawmakers voicing support for Mr. Putin and condemning Prigozhin.

In announcing the rebellion, Mr. Prigozhin said he wanted to punish Mr. Shoigu after he accused Russian government forces of attacking Wagner field camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery. He claimed that “a huge number of our comrades got killed.”

Mr. Prigozhin said his forces shot down a Russian military helicopter that fired on a civilian convoy, but there was no independent confirmation.

He also alleged that Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, ordered the attacks following a meeting with Shoigu in Rostov, where they decided to destroy the military contractor.

The Defense Ministry denied attacking the Wagner camps.

Prigozhin’s past

The 62-year-old Prigozhin, a former convict, has long ties to the Russian leader and won lucrative Kremlin catering contracts that earned him the nickname “Putin's chef.”

He gained attention in the U.S. when he and a dozen other Russian nationals were charged with operating a covert social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord ahead of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory. He formed the Wagner mercenary group, which sent military contractors to Libya, Syria, several African countries and eventually Ukraine.

After Mr. Putin’s address, in which he called for unity, officials sought to reiterate their allegiance to the Kremlin and urged Prigozhin to back down.

Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, said lawmakers “stand for the consolidation of forces″ and support Mr. Putin.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova echoed that, saying in a Telegram post that “we have one commander in chief. Not two, not three. One.″

Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of the Chechnya region who used to side with Mr. Prigozhin in his criticism of the military, also expressed his full support of Mr. Putin's “every word.”

“The mutiny needs to be suppressed," Mr. Kadyrov said.

Even with the confrontation seemingly defused, it appeared likely to further hinder Moscow’s war effort as Kyiv’s forces probed Russian defenses in the initial stages of a counteroffensive.

Wagner’s role in Ukraine war

Wagner forces have played a crucial role, 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.

Mr. Prigozhin's actions could have significant implications for the war. Orysia Lutsevych, the head of the Ukraine Forum at the Chatham House think tank in London, said the infighting could create confusion and potential division among Russian military forces.

“Russian troops in Ukraine may well now be operating in a vacuum, without clear military instructions, and doubts about whom to obey and follow,″ Mr. Lutsevych said. “This creates a unique and unprecedented military opportunity for the Ukrainian army.”

Ukrainian soldier Andrii Kvasnytsia, attending a funeral for a comrade, said Mr. Prigozhin’s intentions toward Ukraine might be worse than Putin’s, but that the infighting would still benefit the country.

Western countries monitored developments closely. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his counterparts in the other G7 countries and the European Union’s foreign affairs representative, his spokesman said, adding that Mr. Blinken “reiterated that support by the United States for Ukraine will not change.”

Latvia and Estonia, two NATO countries that border Russia, said they were increasing security at their borders.

The Kremlin said Mr. Putin spoke by phone with the leaders of Turkey, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan about the events.

Although there was speculation that Putin had left Moscow, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied it.

Russian media reported late Saturday that several helicopters and a military communications plane were downed by Wagner troops during the short-lived uprising. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin previously said his forces had taken control of the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, as well as other military facilities in the city without any deaths or even “a single gunshot.”

The Kremlin referred the question about the losses to the Defense Ministry, which has kept mum.

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