Troops led by Wagner mercenary group leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, withdrew from the southern Russian regions of Lipetsk and Voronezg “steadily and without incident” on Sunday after negotiations between Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russia led to a deal and Wagner forces agreed to stand down.
The group had taken over the city of Rostov-on-Don Saturday and threatened to march toward Moscow in an armed rebellion before a deal was struck. Prigozhin said he decided to turn back to avoid “shedding Russian blood” and will now go to Belarus as part of the deal. Under the negotiations, the criminal case against Prigozhin will be dropped after the Russian national security sector FSB opened a case against Prigozhin for “organizing an armed rebellion,” according to a Kremlin spokesperson.
Wagner troops will also not be charged, and will also have to sign contracts with Russia’s Ministry of Defense as part of the negotiations. Prigozhin also ordered the force to return to their field camps in Ukraine, the AP reports.
On Friday, Prigozhin originally demanded that several key military figures come speak with him, threatening to keep control of the city of Rostov-on-Don—where there was an alleged clash between Wagner and Russian forces—and take his troops to Moscow in what he called “a march for justice.”
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However, in a turn of events later on Saturday, the convoy of Wagner vehicles traveling along a northbound highway halted just 124 miles from Moscow. Prigozhin has long criticized the country’s military leadership over the long battles in Ukraine that have been plagued with supply shortages, but things came to a boiling point Saturday after taking over Rostov.
Putin initially vowed to quash the insurgency, calling it a rebellion and a “stab in the back.”
What led to the rebellion?
Originally a successful businessman before becoming a mercenary leader, Prigozhin was a close ally of Putin’s. Over the 16 months since Russia invaded Ukraine, Prigozhin’s criticisms against Russian military leadership have compounded.
The Wagner leader lost fighters in vast numbers during the bloody campaign to seize Bakhmut—a battle that Russia claimed full victory in, but that Ukraine refutes. Prigozhin has blamed the military for supply shortages and other leadership failures on social media, but avoided criticizing Putin directly. Prigozhin has emphasized that his issue is not with soldiers, but rather with military leadership.
Prigozhin had denied starting a military coup and called himself a “patriot.” Wagner did not attempt to seize power from the government—the main hallmark of a coup—however, Prigozhin claimed to have widespread support among the armed forces.
A threat to Putin
In Russia, this armed rebellion by the Wagners marked the most recent hit to Putin’s power. His authority has already been affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though the country refuses to characterize their actions as a “war,” instead opting to refer to it as a “special operation.”
“The Kremlin now faces a deeply unstable equilibrium,” the Institute for the Study of War said in a public statement. “The Lukashenko-negotiated deal is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution, and Prigozhin’s rebellion exposed severe weaknesses in the Kremlin and Russian [Ministry of Defense].”
Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky also called Russia’s weakness obvious, referring to the chaos with Wagner. Zelensky claimed that Putin is “very afraid” of the Wagner group, but added that “[Putin] himself created this threat.”
On Saturday, Russian authorities declared a state of counterterrorism after Rostov, a major grain-producer in the region and home to the military headquarters that oversee the invasion of Ukraine, was taken. Wagner fighters were also said to have seized nearby military facilities in the city of Voronezh. Residents throughout the region had been advised not to travel and to stay in their homes.
Wagner’s forces are about 25,000 strong, and did not stand down after appeals from military generals Friday to resign their mission. Prigozhin claims that his forces were able to take over Rostov without firing a single shot. Prigozhin previously said that Wagner fighters would not turn themselves in. “We do not want the country to live on in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”
Russian media said that Wagner’s troops moved towards the capital relatively unhindered, and then downed several helicopters and a plane, according to the AP.
Prigozhin has considerable public support across Russia, and the country has come to rely on his mercenaries in the war. He’s maintained that his qualm doesn’t lie with the president’s leadership, however, Putin is taking the crisis seriously. The president delivered a five-minute-long broadcasted speech condemning Wagner’s actions on Saturday.
“Everyone who deliberately embarked on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed rebellion, chose the path of blackmail and terrorist methods—they will suffer inevitable punishment,” Putin said.
Since the crisis began, Russia has continued strikes on Ukraine, firing over a dozen missiles at Kyiv. Ukrainians are welcoming the dispute as a distraction for Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky called Russia’s weakness obvious, referring to the chaos with Wagner. Zelensky also claimed that Putin is “very afraid” of the Wagner group, but added that “[Putin] himself created this threat.”
U.S. government officials announced they’re watching the situation closely and the U.K. described it as the “most significant challenge to the Russian state” as of late.
President Joe Biden spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about the rebellion on Saturday, according to the White House. The leaders also affirmed their ongoing support for Ukraine in the war. Russian officials warned Western countries not to use the crisis as an opportunity “to achieve their Russophobic goals.”
On Saturday, prior to the Wagner halt, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he offered Putin Turkey’s help seeking a “peaceful resolution.” Iranian officials announced that they recognized Russian rule of law and that the events in Russia were an internal matter.
Just west of Russia, Latvia moved to tighten border security after the conflict broke out. The foreign minister also announced that Latvia would cease admitting Russians into the country altogether. Several countries, including the Czech Republic, Israel, and Estonia urged their citizens to reconsider travel to Russia.
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