- Prigozhin says his men will return to base
- Kremlin says mercenary leader will move to Belarus
- Wagner fighters leave Rostov, regional governor says
- Belarus says brokered deal in return for rebels' safety
Moscow: Roadblocks set up on highways leading to Moscow were dismantled after the Wagner Group mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin halted his dramatic advance toward the capital. That has defused the biggest threat to President Vladimir Putin's almost quarter-century grip on power.
Wagner fighters have left the Lipetsk region in southern Russia, the regional government said on Sunday, following a deal to end a rebellion by the mercenary group.
"Wagner units that had deployed on Saturday in the Lipetsk region have now left the region," regional authorities said on social media.
As part of a deal to end the uprising Putin had personally guaranteed that Prigozhin would be allowed to leave for neighbouring Belarus and authorities would drop criminal mutiny charges against him and his fighters.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former Putin ally and founder of the Wagner army, said his men reached within 125 miles (200 km) of the capital on Saturday. Earlier, Moscow deployed soldiers in preparation for their arrival and told residents to stay indoors.
The Wagner fighters captured the city of Rostov hundreds of miles to the south before racing north in convoy, transporting tanks and armoured trucks and smashing through barricades set up to stop them, video showed.
"In 24 hours we got to within 200 km of Moscow. In this time we did not spill a single drop of our fighters' blood," Prigozhin, dressed in full combat uniform at an undisclosed location, said in a video.
"Understanding ... that Russian blood will be spilled on one side, we are turning our columns around and going back to field camps as planned."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that under a deal brokered by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, the criminal case opened against Prigozhin for armed mutiny would be dropped, Prigozhin would move to Belarus, and Wagner fighters who joined his "march for justice" would face no action, in recognition of their previous service to Russia.
Peskov, who called the events of the day "tragic", said Lukashenko had offered to mediate, with Putin's approval, because he had known Prigozhin personally for around 20 years.
In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) underscored the UAE's position calling for de-escalation and self-restraint, emphasising the importance of preserving the unity and stability of the Russian Federation to achieve security and prosperity for its people.
Putin vows to crush ‘armed mutiny’
Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to crush what he called an armed mutiny after rebellious mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Saturday he had taken control of a southern city as part of an attempt to oust the military leadership.
The dramatic turn, with many details unclear, looked like the biggest domestic crisis Putin has faced since he ordered a military operation in Ukraine in February last year.
“Any internal turmoil is a deadly threat to our statehood and to us as a nation. This is a blow to Russia and to our people,” Putin said in a televised address, adding: “This battle, when the fate of our people is being decided, requires the unification of all forces and unity.”
Travel restrictions imposed in Kaluga region south of Moscow
Russian authorities in the Kaluga region south of Moscow on Saturday introduced travel restrictions.
“Please refrain from travelling by private vehicle on these roads unless absolutely necessary,” governor Vladislav Shapsha said in a statement on social media, referring to transport arteries between his region and several others, including those bordering Ukraine.
Moscow warns West
Russia warned the West on Saturday against taking advantage of an armed insurrection carried out by the Wagner mercenary group in Russia to achieve what Moscow said were their “anti-Russian” goals.
“We warn the Western countries against any hint of possible use of the domestic Russian situation to achieve their Russophobic goals,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“All goals and objectives of the special military operation will be fulfilled,” it added, using the term for Moscow’s large-scale military intervention in Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Saturday about the situation in Russia.
According to a statement from the White House, the four leaders reaffirmed their support for Ukraine during the conversation. However, the White House said U.S. officials were wary of weighing in further on the situation and "wanted to avoid any comment that could be misconstrued to suggest the US was taking a side in the apparently internal conflict.”
Prigozhin’s private army, known as Wagner, has been fighting alongside regular Russian troops in Ukraine. His goals weren't immediately clear, but the rebellion marks an escalation in his struggle with Russian military leaders, whom he accused of botching the war in Ukraine and hobbling his forces in the field.
“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin said.
Prigozhin 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. Other videos on social media showed military vehicles, including tanks, on the streets.
“We didn’t kill a single person on our way,” Prigozhin said in one of his several messages posted as the day went on, adding that his forces seized the military headquarters “without a single gunshot.” His claims could not be independently verified. The Russian authorities haven’t reported any casualties so far, either.
“We will destroy anyone who stands in our way,” Prigozhin said earlier in one of a series of angry video and audio recordings posted on social media beginning late Friday. “We are moving forward and will go until the end.”
Rebel mercenaries advanced north towards Moscow after seizing the key military base on Saturday.
Putin’s spokesman insisted the Russian leader was still at work in the Kremlin and had not fled Moscow, as regular forces launched a “counter-terrorist operation” to halt the rebel advance in the Voronezh region, on the Wagner force’s route to the capital.
Meanwhile, the governor of the Lipetsk region, whose capital is just 420 kilometres (260 miles) south of Moscow, said Wagner’s military force was “moving across” the territory and urged civilians not to leave their homes.
A lawmaker was quoted as saying Wagner mercenaries have been promised an amnesty if they lay down their weapons but they need to act fast. “Wagner fighters can still lay down their arms and avoid punishment given their achievements during the special military operation (in Ukraine), but they should do it fast,” TASS cited the lawmaker, Pavel Krasheninnikov, as saying.
Putin said that “excessive ambitions and vested interests have led to treason”, and called the mutiny a “stab in the back”.
“It is a blow to Russia, to our people. And our actions to defend the Fatherland against such a threat will be harsh.” “All those who deliberately stepped on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed insurrection, who took the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, will answer both to the law and to our people,” Putin said.
Putin speaks to allies in Belarus, Central Asia
Putin meanwhile spoke to his Belarus ally, President Alexander Lukashenko, in his first international phone call since mutiny.
“The president of Russia called the president of Belarus this morning, there was a phone conversation,” Belarusian state media reported.
“Vladimir Putin informed his Belarusian colleague about the situation in Russia.”
Lukashenko, who allowed Russian troops to use Belarusian territory as a launchpad for their Ukraine offensive, has remained Putin’s closest ally.
The Kremlin later said Putin also spoke to the president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and the president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
“The president informed them about the situation (in Russia),” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
According to Kazakh media, Tokayev told Putin that events in Russia were an “internal affair,” and Putin thanked him for his “understanding” of the situation.
Russia’s Orthodox leader urges ‘unity,’ says supports Putin
The leader of Russia’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill called for “unity” in the country and voiced support for Putin.
“Today, when our brothers are fighting and dying on the frontlines... any attempt to sow discord within the country is the greatest possible crime that has no justification,” Patriarch Kirill said in a statement, adding that: “I support the efforts of the head of the Russian state, aimed at not allowing turmoil in our country.”
Prigozhin vows not to surrender
Meanwhile, Prigozhin said that he and his men would not turn themselves in on the orders of Putin.
“The president makes a deep mistake when he talks about treason. We are patriots of our motherland, we fought and are fighting for it,” Prigozhin said in an audio message.
“Nobody is going to turn themselves in and confess at the order of the president, the FSB (security service) or anyone else. Because we don’t want the country to continue to live any longer in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”
Prigozhin had demanded that Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, whom he has pledged to oust over what he says is their disastrous leadership of the war against Ukraine, come to see him in Rostov, a city near the Ukrainian border that he said he had seized control of.
He had said he had 25,000 fighters who would “restore justice” and had alleged, without providing evidence, that the military had killed a huge number of fighters from his Wagner private militia in an air strike, something the defence ministry denied.
Prigozhin’s Wagner militia spearheaded the capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut last month, and he has has for months been openly accusing Shoigu and Gerasimov of incompetence and of denying Wagner ammunition and support.
On Friday, he had appeared to cross a new line in the feud, saying that Putin’s stated rationale for invading Ukraine 16 months ago was based on lies concocted by the army’s top brass.
“The war was needed ... so that Shoigu could become a marshal ... so that he could get a second ‘Hero’ [of Russia] medal,” Prigozhin said in a video clip.
“The war wasn’t needed to demilitarise or denazify Ukraine,” he said, referring to Putin’s justifications for the war.
In one of many overnight frenzied audio messages, he had then made clear that he was moving against the army.
“Those who destroyed our lads, who destroyed the lives of many tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, will be punished. I ask that no one offer resistance...,” he said “There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why chaos is happening in the country,” he said, promising to destroy any checkpoints or air forces that got in Wagner’s way.
He later said his men had been involved in clashes with regular soldiers and had shot down a helicopter.
A Russian security source told Reuters that Wagner fighters had also taken control of military facilities in the city of Voronezh, about 500 km (310 miles) south of Moscow. Reuters could not independently confirm that assertion or many of the details provided by Prigozhin.
Criminal case opens
Russia’s FSB security opened a criminal case against Prigozhin for armed mutiny and said his statements were “calls for the start of an armed civil conflict on Russian territory”.
It added: “We urge the ... fighters not to make irreparable mistakes, to stop any forcible actions against the Russian people, not to carry out the criminal and traitorous orders of Prigozhin, to take measures to detain him.” The state news agency TASS quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying that all of Russia’s main security services were reporting to Putin “round the clock”.
Security was being tightened in Moscow, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said on his Telegram channel.
About 2am (2300 GMT), Prigozhin posted a message on the Telegram app saying his forces were in Rostov and ready to “go all the way” against the top brass and destroy anyone who stood in their way.
About 5am (0200 GMT), the administration of the Voronezh region, on the M-4 motorway between the regional capital Rostov-on-Don and Moscow, said on Telegram that a military convoy was on the highway and urged residents to avoid using it.
Unverified footage posted on social media showed a convoy of assorted military vehicles, including at least one tank and one armoured vehicle on flatbed trucks. It was not clear where they were, or whether the covered trucks in the convoy contained fighters. Some of the vehicles were flying the Russian flag.
Footage on channels based in Rostov-on-Don showed armed men in military uniform skirting the regional police headquarters in the city on foot, as well as tanks positioned outside the headquarters of the Southern Military District.
Military coup denied
Reuters confirmed the locations shown but could not determine when the footage was shot.
Prigozhin denied that he was trying to stage a military coup.
He said he had led his fighters out of Ukraine to Rostov, where a video posted by a pro-Wagner Telegram channel showed him, seemingly relaxed, conversing with two generals at the headquarters of Russia’s huge Southern Military District.
The video showed him telling the generals: “We have arrived here, we want to receive the chief of the general staff and Shoigu. Unless they come, we’ll be here, we’ll blockade the city of Rostov and head for Moscow.” Russian local officials said a military convoy was indeed on the main motorway linking the southern part of European Russia with Moscow, and warned residents to avoid it.
Army Lieutenant-General Vladimir Alekseyev - who was later to appear with Prigozhin in the video from Rostov-on-Don - issued a video appeal asking Prigozhin to reconsider his actions.
“Only the president has the right to appoint the top leadership of the armed forces, and you are trying to encroach on his authority,” he said.
An unverified video on a Telegram channel close to Wagner showed the purported scene of an air strike against Wagner forces. It showed a forest where small fires were burning and trees appeared to have been broken by force. There appeared to be one body, but no more direct evidence of any attack.
It carried the caption: “A missile attack was launched on the camps of PMC (Private Military Company) Wagner. Many victims. According to eyewitnesses, the strike was delivered from the rear, that is, it was delivered by the military of the Russian Ministry of Defence.” The Defence Ministry said the allegation was false.
'This would be the end of Prigozhin'
Col. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the deputy commander of the Russian group of forces fighting in Ukraine, urged the Wagner forces to stop any move against the army, saying it would play into the hands of Russia’s enemies, who are “waiting to see the exacerbation of our domestic political situation.”
Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst, predicted this would be the end of Prigozhin.
“Now that the state has actively engaged, there’s no turning back,” she tweeted. “The termination of Prigozhin and Wagner is imminent. The only possibility now is absolute obliteration, with the degree of resistance from the Wagner group being the only variable. Surovikin was dispatched to convince them to surrender. Confrontation seems totally futile.”
Lt. Gen. Vladimir Alexeyev, a top military officer, denounced Prigozhin’s move as “madness” that threatens civil war.
“It’s a stab in the back to the country and the president. … Such a provocation could only be staged by enemies of Russia,” he said.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement that Ukraine was concentrating troops for an attack around Bakhmut to take advantage of “Prigozhin’s provocation.” It said Russian artillery and warplanes were firing on Ukrainian forces as they prepared an offensive.