Russia appears to have passed the brink of full-scale armed mutiny after the Wagner Group, one of the world’s most powerful private armies, halted a march on Moscow that began with a vow of revenge.
Even if the immediate threat appears to have been averted, the unprecedented attack on Russia’s military establishment poses the greatest challenge facing President Vladimir Putin in the 23 years he has ruled with an iron fist – and the crisis is unlikely to end just like that will disappear just because… The military convoy stopped about 200 km (125 miles) from the Russian capital.
Earlier on an extraordinary day, a visibly angered Mr. Putin addressed the nation in an emergency speech, speaking out against the attempted coup and saying the very existence of the Russian state was at stake.
“We are fighting for the life and security of our people, for our sovereignty and independence,” he said, comparing the Wagner “mutiny” to the 1917 revolution that led to the collapse of imperial Russia.
The source of his anger was Mr. Prigozhin, the outspoken leader of the Wagner mercenary group, who had vowed to avenge attacks he claimed had been perpetrated by the Russian military against his men in eastern Ukraine. Mr. Prigozhin vehemently denied the allegations of treason and vowed throughout the day to fight “to the end.”
But late Saturday, his gang of mercenaries halted their march and turned back “so as not to spill Russian blood” — an agreement broken by Belarusian President and Russia’s closest ally, Alexander Lukashenko.
Wagner’s paramilitary chief orders troops to return from Moscow
“In one day we marched almost 200 kilometers outside of Moscow. “During this period, we have not shed a single drop of our fighters’ blood,” Mr. Prigozhin said in audio messages shared on his Telegram channels.
“Now is the moment for blood to spill. Therefore, we are rejecting our convoys and returning to the encampments according to the plan, recognizing the responsibility that rests on one side in the shedding of Russian blood.”
It was unclear on Saturday night exactly what the agreement to stop the Wagner convoy entailed, but the Kremlin confirmed that neither Mr Prigozhin nor his troops would be prosecuted over the uprising. The Kremlin did not confirm Mr Prigozhin’s whereabouts but said he would be transferred to Belarus, a close ally of Russia.
On a day of dramatic developments:
- The Moscow mayor asked all residents to stay in their homes
- The authorities proclaimed an “anti-terrorist regime” in the capital, which increased security and partially restricted freedom of movement
- The crews dug up sections of the freeways to slow the movement of the Wagner convoy
- There was confusion over Mr Putin’s whereabouts. The Kremlin denied that he left the city on a plane
There have also been unconfirmed reports that several Russian officials have left the capital, suggesting that Denis Manturov, a deputy prime minister, may have flown to Turkey.
The crisis ignited on Friday night when Mr Prigozhin, a former hot dog vendor-turned-warlord, released a series of profanity-laced audio and video messages.
He accused the top Russian military officials of bombing his camp in the eastern region of the Donbas, “lying” about the motives for invading Ukraine and rampant corruption.
As tensions mounted, Putin responded that his former confidante was guilty of “armed insurgency” and “treason” and vowed to punish those behind the “pride in the back.”
Paramilitary Wagner troops prepare to evade Moscow’s advance
Wagner forces – stationed along some of the toughest battle lines in Ukraine – crossed the border back into Russia, captured the logistics center of Rostov to the south, and then set off on a 1000 km (620 miles) race to the capital.
Videos shared on their channels allegedly showed a tank column mounted on armored vehicles and an advanced Pantsir anti-aircraft missile system escorted by up to 5,000 men, or a fifth of Wagner’s claimed total force, making its way north.
In a desperate attempt to stem an advance, the Russian military fired helicopters at the column, deployed tanks and even ripped up key highways with excavators, according to videos posted online.
“We will destroy anyone who stands in our way,” Mr. Prigozhin had originally vowed. “We’re going ahead and we’re going to keep going until the end,” he added.
The spectacular outbreak of violence in Russia follows high tensions within the country’s top leadership since President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last February.
Once a shadowy figure who denied his role in private military companies, Mr. Prigozhin has quickly emerged as the most outspoken and powerful figure in Mr. Putin’s war.
Its forces – which first saw action in Russia’s first invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 – were stationed on some of the bloodiest battlefields like Bakhmut.
There he frequently published videos in which he criticized the Ministry of Defense and senior Russian generals for poor battle plans or insufficient ammunition supplies. His former troops say the claim was a ploy to allow him to stockpile weapons he eventually used in Russia on Saturday.
I only speak to The Independenta former Wagner soldier who was stationed near Bakhmut in November but managed to escape to Europe with the help of dissidents said Mr Prigozhin was a “skillful manipulator”.
The soldier said he gained so much power from the war in Ukraine. “Everyone should understand and realize that the regular army and those serving in Wagner are now under the rule imposed by Prigozhin.”
He said that Mr. Prigozhin rules “in a dictatorial regime” out of fear and therefore people remain loyal in order to survive. “You are scared [of] “Retaliation if they speak up or disobey orders,” he said, asking not to be identified for his own safety.
He added that Mr. Prigozhin’s “hysterical” statements and actions “were aimed at gaining support and creating the image of a strong leader.”
“Even today, some people see him positively,” he added.
In Ukraine, commanders, officials and foot soldiers watched the events with amusement, confusion and concern.
The extraordinary disintegration of top-level Russian politics signaled an unprecedented opportunity on the battlefield, but many on the ground feared the forces supporting Mr Prigozhin and the dangers of cornering President Putin.
“If Prigozhin starts destroying planes and helicopters and makes it as far as Moscow, it will mean a big deal,” a Ukrainian intelligence source said The Independent.
“He can’t do this alone, he needs the support of someone, an oligarch, someone who wants to remove Putin and put him in power.” We don’t know who that is and that’s worrying,” the source added.
President Zelenskyy said Saturday’s events showed the world “that the bosses of Russia control nothing. Nothing at all”.
It was “complete chaos,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “There is no predictability at all,” he added, urging the West to do more to support Russia’s expulsion from Ukrainian territories.
Ukrainian soldiers said Ukraine made modest progress on Saturday as the situation in Russia worsened. “Without a doubt, we will take advantage of this, as you will see in the near future,” said Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for the armed forces in the east The Independent.