RUSSIA + UKRAINE

Wagner chief ordered Russian mercenaries to halt march on Moscow

Jun 24, 2023, 11:50 AM | Updated: 12:02 pm

The head of the Wagner force said Saturday he has ordered his mercenaries to halt their march on Mo...

FILE - In this handout photo taken from video released by Prigozhin Press Service on Friday, March 3, 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, addresses Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asking him to withdraw the remaining Ukrainian forces from Bakhmut to save their lives, at an unspecified location in Ukraine. Prigozhin's criticism of the top military brass is in stark contrast with more than two decades of rigidly controlled rule by President Vladimir Putin without any sign of infighting among his top lieutenants. (Prigozhin Press Service via AP, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(Prigozhin Press Service via AP, File)

The head of the Wagner force said Saturday he has ordered his mercenaries to halt their march on Moscow and retreat to their field camps in Ukraine to avoid shedding Russian blood.

The announcement from Yevgeny Prigozhin appeared to defuse a growing crisis. Moscow had braced for the arrival of the private army led by the rebellious commander. And President Vladimir Putin had vowed he would face harsh consequences.

Prigozhin said that while his men are just 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Moscow, he decided to turn them back to avoid “shedding Russian blood.”

He didn’t say whether the Kremlin has responded to his demand to oust Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.

The announcement follows a statement from the office of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko saying that he had negotiated a deal with Prigozhin after previously discussing the issue with Putin.

Prigozhin has accepted Lukashenko’s offer to halt the Wagner group’s advance and further steps to de-escalate the tensions, Lukashenko’s office said, adding that the proposed settlement contains security guarantees for Wagner troops. It didn’t elaborate.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

Moscow on Saturday erected checkpoints with armored vehicles and troops on its southern edge, Red Square was shut down and the mayor urged motorists to stay off some roads as the Russian capital braced for the arrival of a private army led by a rebellious mercenary commander.

President Vladimir Putin vowed harsh consequences for organizers of the armed uprising led by his onetime protege, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who brought his forces out of Ukraine, seized a key military facility in southern Russia and advanced toward Moscow.

Prigozhin’s actions represented the most significant challenge to Putin’s leadership in his more than two decades in power.

In a televised speech to the nation, Putin called the rebellion a “betrayal” and “treason.”

“All those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment,” Putin said. “The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders.”

Authorities declared a “counterterrorist regime” in the capital and its surrounding region, enhancing security and restricting some movement.

On the southern outskirts, troops erected checkpoints, arranged sandbags and set up machine guns.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin warned that traffic could be restricted in parts of the capital. He declared Monday a non-working day for most residents.

Crews dug up sections of highways to slow the march of the Wagner mercenary army. Access to Red Square was closed, two major museums were evacuated and a park was shut.

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 that runs Russian operations in Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.

Wagner troops and equipment also were in Lipetsk province, about 360 kilometers (225 miles) south of Moscow, where authorities “are taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the population,” said regional Gov. Igor Artamonov, via Telegram. He did not elaborate.

The dramatic developments came exactly 16 months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s largest conflict since World War II, that has killed tens of thousands, displaced millions and reduced cities to rubble.

Ukrainians hoped the Russian infighting would create opportunities for its army to take back territory seized by Russian forces.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Moscow was suffering “full-scale weakness” and that Kyiv was protecting Europe from “the spread of Russian evil and chaos.”

The Federal Security Service, or FSB, called for Prigozhin’s arrest Friday night after he declared the armed rebellion.

Prigozhin said his fighters would not surrender, as “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.

Prigozhin’s private army has been fighting alongside regular Russian troops in Ukraine. His goals weren’t immediately clear, but the rebellion marks an escalation in his struggle with Russian military leaders, whom he accused of botching the war in Ukraine and hobbling his forces in the field.

“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin said.

Prigozhin said he had 25,000 troops under his command and urged the army not to offer resistance.

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. Other videos on social media showed military vehicles, including tanks, on the streets.

“We didn’t kill a single person on our way,” Prigozhin said in one of his several messages posted as the day went on, adding that his forces seized the military headquarters “without a single gunshot.” His claims could not be independently verified. The Russian authorities haven’t reported any casualties so far, either.

The rebellion comes as Russia is “fighting the toughest battle for its future,” Putin said, with the West piling sanctions on Moscow and arming Ukraine.

“The entire military, economic and information machine of the West is waged against us,” Putin said.

A Muscovite who gave only his first name of Khachik called the situation “scary.” Another man who didn’t want to be identified at all denounced Prigozhin’s move as a betrayal and said he supports the Defense Ministry.

State-controlled TV networks led their newscasts with Putin’s statement and reported the tense situation in Rostov-on-Don. Some showed social media videos of residents denouncing Wagner troops.

Broadcasters also carried statements from top officials and lawmakers voicing support for Putin and condemning Prigozhin.

In announcing the rebellion, Prigozhin said he wanted to punish Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu after he accused Russian government forces of attacking Wagner field camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery. He claimed that “a huge number of our comrades got killed.”

Prigozhin said his forces shot down a Russian military helicopter that fired on a civilian convoy, but there was no independent confirmation.

He alleged that Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, ordered the attacks following a meeting with Shoigu, where they decided to destroy the military contractor.

The Defense Ministry denied attacking the Wagner camps.

The 62-year-old Prigozhin, a former convict, has long ties to the Russian leader and won lucrative Kremlin catering contracts that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.”

He gained attention in the U.S. when he and a dozen other Russian nationals were charged with operating a covert social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord ahead of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory. He formed the Wagner mercenary group, which sent military contractors to Libya, Syria, several African countries and eventually Ukraine.

After Putin’s address, in which he called for unity, officials sought to reiterate their allegiance to the Kremlin and urged Prigozhin to back down.

Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, said lawmakers “stand for the consolidation of forces″ and support Putin.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova echoed that, saying in a Telegram post that “we have one commander in chief. Not two, not three. One.″

Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of the Chechnya region who used to side with Prigozhin in his criticism of the military, also expressed his full support of Putin’s “every word.”

“The mutiny needs to be suppressed,” Kadyrov said.

While the outcome of the confrontation was still unclear, it appeared likely to further hinder Moscow’s war effort as Kyiv’s forces probed Russian defenses in the initial stages of a counteroffensive.

Wagner forces have played a crucial role, capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut, an area where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place. But Prigozhin has increasingly criticized the military brass, accusing it of incompetence and of starving his troops of munitions.

Zelenskyy noted the rebellion in his Telegram channel and said “anyone who chooses the path of evil destroys himself.”

“For a long time, Russia used propaganda to mask its weakness and the stupidity of its government. And now there is so much chaos that no lie can hide it,” he said.

Prigozhin’s actions could have significant implications for the war. Orysia Lutsevych, the head of the Ukraine Forum at the Chatham House think tank in London, said the infighting will create confusion and potential division among Russian military forces.

“Russian troops in Ukraine may well now be operating in a vacuum, without clear military instructions, and doubts about whom to obey and follow,″ Lutsevych said. “This creates a unique and unprecedented military opportunity for the Ukrainian army.”

Ukrainian soldier Andrii Kvasnytsia, attending a funeral for a comrade, said Prigozhin’s intentions toward Ukraine might be worse than Putin’s, but that the infighting would still benefit the country.

Prigozhin, whose feud with the Defense Ministry dates back years, had refused to comply with a requirement that his forces sign contracts with the ministry before July 1. He said Friday he was ready for a compromise but “they have treacherously cheated us.”

In Washington, the Institute for the Study of War said “the violent overthrow of Putin loyalists like Shoigu and Gerasimov would cause irreparable damage to the stability of Putin’s perceived hold on power.”

Western countries monitored developments closely. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his counterparts in the other G7 countries and the European Union’s foreign affairs representative, his spokesman said, adding that Blinken “reiterated that support by the United States for Ukraine will not change.”

Latvia and Estonia, two NATO countries that border Russia, said they were increasing security at their borders.

The Kremlin said Putin spoke by phone with the leaders of Turkey, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan about the events.

Although there was speculation that Putin had left Moscow, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied it.

Related: US and western officials caught off guard by Prigozhin’s escalation in Russia

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Wagner chief ordered Russian mercenaries to halt march on Moscow