Russian Mercenaries Return to Base After Deal Ends Mutiny

By Reuters
June 25, 2023Europe
Russian Mercenaries Return to Base After Deal Ends Mutiny
(Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

ROSTOV-ON-DON/VORONEZH, Russia—Heavily armed Russian mercenaries withdrew from the southern Russian city of Rostov under a deal that halted their rapid advance on Moscow but raised questions on Sunday about President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.

Ending their short-lived mutiny, fighters of the Wagner group began heading back to their bases late on Saturday in return for guarantees for their safety. Their commander, Yevgeny Prigozhin, will move to Belarus under the deal mediated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested the turmoil in Russia could take months to play out, while Italy’s foreign minister said it had shattered the “myth” of Russian unity.

Putin has not commented publicly since the deal was struck to de-escalate one of the biggest challenges since he rose to power more than two decades ago.

He said he was giving top priority to the conflict in Ukraine in excerpts from an interview aired by state television on Sunday, but it appeared to have been recorded before the mutiny and he made no reference to Saturday’s events.

State television said Putin would attend a meeting of Russia’s Security Council this coming week, without elaborating, and Belarus’ Belta news agency says Putin and Lukashenko spoke again on Sunday, after at least two calls on Saturday.

Prigozhin, 62, was seen leaving the district military headquarters in Rostov—hundreds of miles south of Moscow—late on Saturday in a sport utility vehicle. His whereabouts on Sunday were not known.

NTD Photo
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, shakes hands with supporters as he prepares to leave Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

A former Putin ally and ex-convict whose forces have fought the bloodiest battles of the 16-month war in Ukraine, Prigozhin said his decision to advance on Moscow was intended to remove corrupt and incompetent Russian commanders he blames for botching the war.

‘Cracks’ in the Facade

Western leaders expressed concern over the events in Russia, which has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

“We’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian facade. It is too soon to tell exactly where they go, and when they get there. But certainly, we have all sorts of new questions that Putin is going to have to address in the weeks and months ahead,” Blinken told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program on Sunday.

Blinken also said the United States remained focused on “resolutely and relentlessly” helping Ukraine to defend itself and recover territory seized by Russia over the past 16 months.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said things were “moving in the right direction” after he discussed events in Russia and Ukraine, where his forces this month launched a Western-backed counteroffensive, with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“We agree that the Russian authorities are weak and that withdrawing Russian troops from Ukraine is the best choice for the Kremlin,” Reznikov wrote on Twitter.

China, a key ally of Putin, made no initial public reference to the turmoil, eventually saying after talks with a visiting senior Russian diplomat on Sunday that it supported Russia in maintaining national stability.

After capturing Rostov—the main rear logistical hub for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the mercenaries began what Prigozhin called a “march for justice” on Saturday, transporting tanks and armored trucks hundreds of miles north and smashing barricades set up to stop them before the deal to stand down.

NTD Photo
Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group are seen atop of a tank while being deployed near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023. (Stringer/Reuters)

Videos shared on social media from Rostov that night purportedly showed the mercenaries withdrawing in a convoy of armored vehicles, tanks, and coaches to the sound of cheers, chants of “Wagner” and celebratory gunfire from residents.

Reuters was able to verify the location of the video but not the date that it was filmed.

“Take care of yourselves,” shouted one woman.

The show of support for Wagner’s short-lived insurrection was striking in a country that is increasingly intolerant of public criticism of Putin and his rule.

The mood on the streets of Rostov on Sunday was mainly one of relief.

“It was scary … Everyone is glad that nothing bad happened … It did not come to an armed clash,” said resident Dmitry, who declined to give his surname. “There are very serious problems in the country, and they need to be solved.”

In Moscow, where there was little evidence on Sunday of increased security, some expressed a measure of understanding for Prigozhin’s position.

“The opinions of a person who has a certain weight in society should probably be heard by the authorities,” said Oleg.

Monday has been declared a non-working day in the Russian capital to allow time for things to settle.

Deal Brokered

Under the deal, brokered late on Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a criminal case opened against Prigozhin for armed mutiny would be dropped, Prigozhin would move to Belarus, and Wagner fighters who rallied to his cause would face no action, in recognition of their previous service to Russia.

Peskov said Lukashenko had offered to mediate, with Putin’s approval, because he had known Prigozhin personally for around 20 years.

In a televised address during Saturday’s drama, Putin said the rebellion put Russia’s very existence under threat, vowing to punish those behind the revolt and drawing parallels with the chaos of 1917 that had led to the Bolshevik revolution.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on monitors as he addresses the nation after Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, called for armed rebellion and reached the southern city of Rostov-on-Don with his troops, in Moscow, on June 24, 2023. (Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Prigozhin has for months accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, of incompetence and of withholding ammunition from his fighters as they battled to take Bakhmut in Ukraine.

This month, Prigozhin defied orders to place his troops under Defense Ministry command. He launched the rebellion on Friday after alleging the military had killed some of his men in an air strike. The Defense Ministry denied this.

Wagner, whose men in Ukraine include thousands of ex-prisoners recruited from Russian jails, has grown into a sprawling international business with mining interests and fighters in Africa and the Middle East.

Russia’s ministry of digital affairs recommended that IT, telecoms, and media companies give employees the day off on Monday.

“Saturday was a very emotional and tense day,” the ministry said.

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