June 24, 2023 -The greatest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades in power fizzled out relatively peacefully Saturday after the rebellious mercenary commander who ordered his troops to march on Moscow abruptly reached a deal with the Kremlin to go into exile and sounded the retreat.
The dramatic if brief revolt shifted the landscape for the Kremlin and the 16-month-old war in Ukraine and prompted Russia to pull soldiers back from the battlefield to defend the capital, a stunning recognition of the threat posed by Wagner Group soldiers under the command of Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Under the deal announced by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Prigozhin will go to neighboring Belarus and charges of mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped. The government said it also would not prosecute fighters who took part, while those who did not join in were to be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry.
Putin had vowed earlier to punish those behind the armed uprising led by his onetime protege, whose forces seized a key military facility in southern Russia before advancing on the capital. In a televised speech to the nation, he called the rebellion a “betrayal” and “treason.”
In allowing Prigozhin and his forces to go free, Peskov said, Putin’s “highest goal” was “to avoid bloodshed and internal confrontation with unpredictable results.”
Moscow had braced for the arrival of the Wagner forces by erecting checkpoints with armored vehicles and troops on the city’s southern edge. Red Square was shut down, and the mayor urged motorists to stay off some roads.
About 3,000 Chechen soldiers were pulled from fighting in Ukraine and rushed there early Saturday, state television in Chechnya reported, signaling the Kremlin’s desperation as the Wagner troops advanced to, according to Prigozhin, just 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Moscow.
But after the deal was struck, Prigozhin announced that he had decided to retreat to avoid “shedding Russian blood.” His troops were ordered back to their field camps in Ukraine, where they have been fighting alongside Russian regular soldiers.
Prigozhin has demanded the ouster of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, long the target of his withering criticism for his conduct of the war in Ukraine. On Friday, he accused forces under Shoigu’s command of attacking Wagner camps and killing “a huge number of our comrades.”
Prigozhin did not say whether the Kremlin had responded to his demand. Peskov said the issue could not have been discussed during the negotiations, which were conducted by the president of Belarus, and is the “exclusive prerogative of the commander in chief.”
If Putin were to agree to Shoigu’s ouster, it could be politically damaging for the president after he branded Prigozhin a backstabbing traitor.
Early Saturday, Prigozhin’s private army appeared to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city 660 miles (over 1,000 kilometers) south of Moscow, which runs Russian operations in Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.
A nighttime video from the city posted on Russian messaging app channels showed people cheering Wagner troops as they left Rostov-on-Don. Prigozhin was seen riding in one of the vehicles, and people greeted him and some ran to shake his hand as he lowered the window. The regional governor later said that all of the troops had left the city.
Wagner troops and equipment also were in Lipetsk province, about 360 kilometers (225 miles) south of Moscow.
Authorities declared a “counterterrorist regime” in Moscow and its surrounding region, enhancing security and restricting some movement. On the southern outskirts, troops erected checkpoints, arranged sandbags and set up machine guns. Crews dug up sections of highways to slow the march.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin declared Monday a non-working day for most residents as part of the heightened security, a measure that remained in effect even after the retreat.
The dramatic developments came exactly 16 months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s largest conflict since World War II, which has killed tens of thousands, displaced millions and reduced cities to rubble.
Ukrainians hoped the Russian infighting would create opportunities for their army to take back territory seized by Russian forces.
Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that even with a deal, Putin’s position has probably been weakened and “these events will have been of great comfort to the Ukrainian government and the military.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Saturday, shortly before Prigozhin announced his retreat, that the march exposed a weakness in the Kremlin and “showed all Russian bandits, mercenaries, oligarchs” that it is easy to capture Russian cities “and, probably, arsenals.”
Switching into Russian in his daily video address, Zelenskyy said “the man from the Kremlin” was “very afraid.” He repeated his calls for the West to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets and ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles.
Prigozhin had vowed earlier that his fighters, whom he said to number some 25,000, would not surrender because “we do not want the country to live on in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”
“Regarding the betrayal of the motherland, the president was deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our homeland,” he said in an audio message on his Telegram channel.
He 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 without any deaths or even “a single gunshot.”
Russian media, however, reported that several helicopters and a military communications plane were downed by Wagner troops. The Kremlin referred a question about the losses to the Defense Ministry, which has not commented.