Mercenary soldiers from the Wagner group are said to have pulled out of the southern Russian town of Rostov-on-Don a day after they seized a military HQ there
Moscow (AFP) - Wagner mercenaries were returning to base on Sunday as their mutinous leader agreed to go into exile after President Vladimir Putin was forced to accept an amnesty deal.
The agreement appears to end the immediate threat that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private army could storm Moscow, but analysts said Wagner’s revolt had exposed a fragility in Putin’s rule.
Security measures imposed under an “anti-terrorism operation” were still in place in Moscow on Sunday, and Prigozhin’s exact whereabouts were unclear.
But his troops had left a military headquarters they had seized in southern Russia, and the governor of Voronezh on their route northwards to Moscow said Wagner units were leaving the region and movement restrictions being lifted,.
The long-standing feud between Prigozhin and military top brass over the conduct of the Russian operation in Ukraine boiled over on Saturday when Wagner forces seized the base in Rostov-on-Don and embarked on a long advance towards Moscow.
Putin denounced the action as treason and vowed to punish the perpetrators, accusing them of pushing Russia to the brink of civil war – only to then accept a rapidly cobbled-together agreement to avert Moscow’s most serious security crisis in decades.
- ‘Russian blood’ -
Within hours of Prigozhin’s surprise announcement that his forces would return to base to avoid “spilling Russian blood”, the Kremlin announced that Putin’s former ally would leave for Belarus and Russia would not prosecute him or Wagner’s troops.
By early Sunday Wagner had pulled fighters and equipment from Rostov-on-Don, where they had seized the military headquarters
By early Sunday, Wagner had pulled out of Rostov-on-Don, the regional governor said, but before they left dozens of residents were see cheering them and chanting “Wagner! Wagner!”.
Ukraine revelled in the chaos, stepping up its own counteroffensive against Russian forces in the country and mocking Putin’s apparent humiliation.
Analysts also said the deal had exposed weakness in the Russian president’s grip on power.
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said he had negotiated the truce with Prigozhin. Moscow thanked him, but observers noted that an intervention by Lukashenko, usually seen as Putin’s very junior partner, was itself an embarrassment.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later said the criminal case against Prigozhin will be dropped and he would go to Belarus, while members of Wagner who had taken part in what authorities dubbed an “armed rebellion” would not be prosecuted.
Wagner chief says his rebel troops 'turning back'
In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s senior aide Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted: “Prigozhin humiliated Putin/the state and showed that there is no longer a monopoly on violence.”
While Russia claimed the rebellion had no impact on its Ukraine campaign, Kyiv said the unrest offered a “window of opportunity” as the nation pressed its long-awaited counter-offensive.
- Shock troops -
In addition to providing some of the most successful shock troops fighting in Ukraine, Prigozhin’s outfit conducts several mercenary operations in the Middle East and West Africa.
These missions are seen to have the Kremlin’s backing and amount to Russian influence operations to curry favour with African governments and win access to mineral resources.
Independent political analyst Konstantin Kalachev told AFP: “The crisis of institutions and trust was not obvious to many in Russia and the West yesterday. Today, it is clear.
“Yesterday’s call for unity made by representatives of the elites only confirmed this. Behind these is a crisis of institutions and fears for themselves,” he said.
He noted that Russian leaders would be concerned by the sight of civilian onlookers applauding Wagner units in Rostov.
Security was tightened in Moscow at key points including the parliament building and Red Square
“Putin’s position is weakened,” he said. “Putin underestimated Prigozhin, just as he underestimated Zelensky before that … He could have stopped this with a phone call to Prigozhin but he did not.”
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Lukashenko’s direct role in negotiating the truce would be “humiliating to Putin”.
“The Kremlin now faces a deeply unstable equilibrium,” it said.
“The Lukashenko-negotiated deal is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution, and Prigozhin’s rebellion exposed severe weaknesses in the Kremlin and Russian MoD.”
The United States and its Western allies, who back Ukraine, were tight-lipped about the revolt amid concerns that Putin’s control over the nuclear-armed country could be slipping.
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani told the newspaper Il Messaggero: “The myth of the unity of Putin’s Russia is over. This internal escalation divides the Russian military alliance.
“It’s the inevitable outcome when you support and finance a legion of mercenaries,” he said.
But there was support for Russia from North Korea. Vice foreign minister Im Chon Il “expressed firm belief that the recent armed rebellion in Russia would be successfully put down”, said the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
China’s foreign minister Qin Gang met Russia’s deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko in Beijing on Sunday, China’s foreign ministry said, but released few details about what was discussed beyond “international and regional issues of common concern”.
- ‘A blow to Russia’ -
On Saturday as the Wagner force headed north on a major highway towards Putin, the president accused Prigozhin of a “stab in the back” that posed a threat to Russia’s very survival.
“Any internal turmoil is a deadly threat to our statehood and to us as a nation … Extravagant ambitions and personal interests led to treason,” Putin said, referring to Prigozhin, who began building his power base as a catering contractor.
While Prigozhin’s outfit fought at the forefront of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine, he repeatedly blamed Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, for under-supplying his units.