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Prigozhin turns forces back in deal with Kremlin to drop charges

Russian President Vladimir Putin, shown on Jan. 27, 2021, is being misled by his advisers on the facts of the war in Ukraine, a White House spokeswoman said Wednesday. (Mikhail Klimentyev/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
June 24, 2023

Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin halted his advance toward Moscow and pulled his fighters back, defusing what had become the biggest threat to Vladimir Putin’s grip on Russia in his almost quarter-century rule.

As part of a deal to end the uprising the Russian president had personally guaranteed that Prigozhin would be allowed to leave for neighboring Belarus and authorities would drop criminal mutiny charges against him and his fighters, according to the Kremlin.

There was no immediate confirmation from Prigozhin of the pact, which Russia said was brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a staunch Putin ally.

“We were able to resolve the situation without further losses, without further increasing the level of tension,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

The events capped a day of escalating drama that saw Prigozhin take convoys of his fighters to within hours of the capital virtually unchallenged, even after Putin accused the mercenary group of “treason” in a TV broadcast to the nation Saturday.

By allowing him to leave unpunished, Putin risks the appearance that he was forced to give in to the armed challenge of a man once derisively known as the president’s chef for his Kremlin catering contracts.

Prigozhin’s rebellion — which Putin in his speech called “a deadly threat to our statehood” — jolted a nation trying to sustain a war in Ukraine that’s the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II. 

It unfolded against the backdrop of a Ukrainian counteroffensive across some of the area where Wagner’s troops deployed for months in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle. The showdown also had echoes in Russian history, where leaders including Tsar Nicholas II and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev were ousted after failed military adventures.

The U.S. and Europe had been watching the latest events closely, with President Joe Biden getting regular briefings as officials sought to interpret the fast-moving events.

“Everything indicates there’s de-escalation in Russia,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said in Warsaw late Saturday. 

Prigozhin’s troops pulled out of positions they’d taken up early Saturday in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, Tass reported. Moscow planned to lift tight security measures imposed earlier when the mercenary group was heading for the capital.

Even if Putin has succeeded in avoiding a conflict, Prigozhin’s dramatic challenge has shaken the Russian president’s image of total political control. 

“We underestimated Prigozhin but now we’ve clearly overestimated Putin,” Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R.Politik, wrote in Telegram. “This is a very powerful defeat for him.”

There was no immediate word on whether Putin had agreed to Prigozhin’s demand that he replace his defense minister and top military commander, whom the mercenary blames for botching the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin said the issue wasn’t discussed in the talks with Lukashenko Saturday, according to Tass.

“In 24 hours we got to within 200 km of Moscow,” Prigozhin said late Saturday in an audio message on Telegram. “Now is the moment when blood could be shed. Therefore, taking full responsibility for the fact that Russian blood could be spilled, we are turning our columns around and returning to our field camps.”

He didn’t indicate how far back they would withdraw or provide other details. “They wanted to disband PMC Wagner,” he said in the message, without elaborating.

After vowing to lead “a march of justice” on Moscow, Prigozhin posted a video of himself early Saturday at what he said were military offices under Wagner’s control in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, one of the main operational centers for Russian forces deployed in Ukraine. The claim couldn’t be independently confirmed. 

His forces later advanced along the route of the main M4 highway linking Moscow to Rostov. Videos appeared on social media showing military helicopters flying over the city of Voronezh where a fuel storage depot was rocked by an explosion. Regional Gov. Alexander Gusev said the depot was on fire, without giving an explanation.

Wagner’s forces were then seen moving through the Lipetsk region about 218 miles (350 kilometers) from Moscow, Gov. Igor Artamonov said on Telegram, urging residents to stay in their homes. The governor of nearby Kaluga announced travel restrictions into the region that’s about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the capital.

Putin didn’t name Prigozhin during his five-minute broadcast in which he said “excessive ambitions and personal interests led to treason” against the state and “the cause for which Wagner fighters and commanders fought and died.” He drew a comparison with divisions in Russia during World War I that led to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and civil war. 

Biden earlier Saturday held talks on the unfolding situation in Russia with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The leaders also affirmed their “unwavering support” for Ukraine, according to a White House statement.

With the Wagner fighters approaching, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin had declared Monday a nonworking day for all but essential services and advised residents to avoid traveling around the city, saying roads may be blocked off in the “complicated” situation. 

Officials earlier announced a “counterterrorist regime” in Moscow and its surrounding region as well as in Voronezh region. Photographs appeared on social media of roadblocks on approaches to the capital.


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