Russia appears to have pulled back from the brink of an all-out armed mutiny, after the Wagner Group, one of the world’s most powerful private armies, halted a march on Moscow that had begun with a vow of revenge.
While the immediate threat appears to have been averted, the unprecedented attack on Russia’s military establishment marks the most serious challenge to President Vladimir Putin in his 23 years of rule with an iron fist — and the crisis is unlikely to disappear just because the military convoy stopped 125 miles from the Russian capital.
Earlier in the day, a visibly angry Mr Putin made an emergency address to the nation railing against the attempted coup and saying the existence of the Russian state was at risk.
“We are fighting for the life and security of our people, for our sovereignty and freedom,” he said, comparing Wagner’s “uprising” to the 1917 revolution that led to the collapse of imperial Russia.
The source of his anger is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the outspoken leader of the Wagner mercenary group, who has vowed revenge for attacks he claims the Russian military has carried out against his people in eastern Ukraine. Prigozhin strongly denied the accusations of treason and spent the day vowing to fight “to the end.”
However, on Saturday his band of mercenaries called off their march and would return “to avoid the shedding of Russian blood” – in a deal that was broken by the president of Belarus and Russia’s closest ally Alexander Lukashenko.
Wagner’s paramilitary boss ordered troops back from Moscow
“In one day, we marched almost 200km outside of Moscow. During this time, we did not shed a single drop of the blood of our fighters,” Mr Prigozhin said in audio messages shared on his channels. on Telegram.
“Now, the time has come for blood to flow. So, realizing the responsibility of shedding Russian blood on one of the sides, we turned back our convoys and returned to the field camps according to the plan.
It was unclear on Saturday night exactly what the deal to stop the Wagner convoy meant, but the Kremlin confirmed that neither Mr Prigozhin nor his troops would face criminal charges of insurrection. The Kremlin did not confirm Mr Prigozhin’s whereabouts but said he would be transferred to Belarus, a close Russian ally.
In a day of dramatic developments:
- The mayor of Moscow urged all residents to stay in their homes
- Authorities have declared an “anti-terrorist regime” in the capital – boosting security and restricting some movement.
- Crews dug up sections of highways to slow the movement of the Wagner convoy
- There is confusion over Mr Putin’s whereabouts, with the Kremlin denying he left the city on a plane
There were also unconfirmed reports that several Russian officials had left the capital, with suggestions that Denis Manturov, a deputy prime minister, may have flown to Turkey.
The crisis flared up on Friday night when Mr Prigozhin, a former hotdog vendor turned powerful warlord, issued a series of nonsensical audio and video messages.
He accused top Russian military brass of bombing his camp in the eastern Donbas region, “lying” about the motives for invading Ukraine, and widespread corruption.
As tensions rose, Mr Putin responded by saying his former confidant was guilty of “armed rebellion” and “treason” and vowed to punish those behind the “backstabbing”.
Wagner’s paramilitary troops prepared to turn back from the advance on Moscow
Wagner’s forces – deployed along some of Ukraine’s toughest battle lines – crossed back into Russia, captured the logistical hub of Rostov in the south, and then began a 1000km race to the capital.
Videos shared on their channels purportedly show a column of tanks mounted on armored cars and advanced Pantsir anti-aircraft missile systems heading north accompanied by as many as 5000 people, or a fifth of claimed to be Wagner’s general force.
Desperate to stop an advance, the Russian military fired on the column with helicopters, deployed tanks and even tore up key roads with diggers according to videos posted online. .
“We will destroy anyone who stands in our way,” Mr Prigozhin originally promised.
“We continue and will continue until the end,” he added.
The surprising outburst of violence in Russia, comes after tensions within the country’s high command since President Putin invaded Ukraine in February.
Prigozhin, once a shadowy figure who denied his role in private military companies, quickly became Putin’s most outspoken and powerful war figure.
His forces – which first featured in Russia’s initial invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 – were deployed in some of the bloodiest battlefields such as Bakhmut.
There he would often post videos criticizing the Ministry of Defense and top Russian generals for poor war plans or not providing enough ammunition. This claim, his former troops said, was a ruse to allow him to stockpile the weapons he finally used in Russia on Saturday.
Exclusively speaking 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 “skilled manipulator”.
The soldier said he gained a lot of power because of the war in Ukraine. “Everyone must understand and realize that the regular army and those serving in Wagner are now under the rule imposed by Prigozhin.”
He said Mr Prigozhin ruled through fear “in a dictatorial regime” and so people remained loyal to survive.
“They fear retaliation if they speak up or fail to follow orders,” he said, asking to remain anonymous for his own security.
He added that Mr Prigozhin’s “hysterical” statements and actions were “aimed at gaining support and creating the image of a strong leader.”
“Even to this day, some people continue to see him as good,” he added.
In Ukraine, commanders, officers and foot soldiers watched with amusement, confusion and fear, the events as they unfolded.
The extraordinary disbanding of Russia’s top brass marks an unprecedented opportunity on the battlefield, but many on the ground fear what forces are backing Mr Prigozhin and the dangers of a President Putin who backed up in the corner.
“If Prigozhin starts destroying planes and helicopters and goes to Moscow, it means a big thing,” a Ukrainian intelligence source said. The Independent.
“He can’t do it on his own, he has to be supported by 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 Zelensky said Saturday’s events showed the world “that Russia’s bosses have no control over anything. Nothing at all.”
It’s “complete chaos,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “There is a complete absence of any predictability,” he added, urging the West to provide more support to expel Russia from Ukrainian lands.
Ukrainian soldiers said Ukraine made modest gains on Saturday as the situation in Russia unraveled.
“Without a doubt, we will take advantage of it, as you will see in the near future,” Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for the Armed Forces in the east, said. The Independent.