Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced a deal late on Saturday that Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin would depart for Belarus in return for being spared prosecution, after an abortive rebellion in which his troops made a dash for Moscow.
The announcement, carried by the Tass news agency, came shortly after embittered warlord Prigozhin announced his men were turning back from Moscow to avoid a devastating civil conflict. In a voice recording posted to 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 said their uprising risked tipping Russia into civil war.
Prigozhin, smarting over the Kremlin’s handling of the war in Ukraine, announced early on Saturday that his mercenaries had seized the major southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, a logistics hub for Putin’s war, and threatened to push on to Moscow. Wagner 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 being dispatched to take on Wagner in Rostov — the uprising suddenly fizzled out in the evening. Ultimately, Moscow appeared an improbably ambitious target for Prigozhin and Russian regular forces appeared unable to do much to counter Prigozhin in the south.
Prigozhin said he was pulling back from the capital to avoid a bloodbath.
“During this time we did not spill a single drop of blood of our fighters,” he said. “Taking responsibility for the fact that Russian blood will be shed — on one side — we will turn our columns around and go in the opposite direction to field camps, according to the plan,” he said.
As Wagner advanced over the course of the day, Moscow’s mayor had declared a “counter terrorism operation” and mechanical diggers carved ditches in the main highway running from the south into the capital to halt Prigozhin’s men. Patriarch Kirill, the head of Russia’s Orthodox Church, exhorted Russians to pray for Putin.
It was unclear what Prigozhin meant by returning his men to camps, and whether Wagner intended to hold its southern positions in Rostov and Voronezh. Tellingly, the governor of Rostov region, Vasily Golubev, said the jury was still out on Prigozhin’s pledge to withdraw his troops. “We suggest we wait for actions and comment on them, not words.” Later in the evening, social media footage appeared to show Wagner pulling out from Rostov, to chants of support from local people.
Moments before Prigozhin’s volte-face, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko issued a statement claiming he held talks throughout the day with the outspoken oligarch — a former caterer nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of his contracts to supply food and drink to the Kremlin.
“As a result, they came to agreements on the inadmissibility of unleashing a bloody massacre on the territory of Russia,” the message from Lukashenko’s office read.
“Yevgeny Prigozhin accepted the proposal of the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to stop the movement of armed personnel of the Wagner company inside Russia, and take additional steps to de-escalate tensions.”
“At the moment there is an completely constructive and acceptable option of resolving the situation, with security guarantees for the Wagner PMC fighters on the table,” the press release claimed. If there are such guarantees, they will be a bitter pill for Putin, who promised to punish the rebels.
Given Peskov’s statement that Prigozhin will depart for Belarus, it now seems the Wagner commander has failed to to secure his core demands.
He has fulminated against incompetence and corruption in Russia’s high command for months and has accused Moscow of not giving him the support and equipment he requires. The biggest win for Prigozhin would have been Putin agreeing to remove Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu or Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov — both hate figures to the mercenary boss — but such a huge concession from the Russian president was never likely.
For its part, Ukraine stressed the uprising had shown Russia was out of control.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “today, the world saw that the bosses of Russia do not control anything. Nothing at all. Complete chaos. Complete absence of any predictability.”
“The longer your troops stay on Ukrainian land, the more devastation they will bring to Russia. The longer this person is in the Kremlin, the more disasters there will be,” he added.