'Anti-terror' security measures were still in place in Moscow Sunday, though fewer police were visible

Moscow (AFP) - Wagner mercenaries headed back to their base on Sunday after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin agreed to allow their leader to avoid treason charges and accept exile in neighbouring Belarus.

The agreement ended an extraordinary crisis – the threat that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private army would storm Moscow – but analysts said Wagner’s revolt had exposed Putin’s rule as more fragile than previously thought.

Security measures were still in place in Moscow Sunday, though fewer police were visible, and passers-by said they were unconcerned, despite Prigozhin’s exact whereabouts remaining unclear.

“Of course, I was shaken at the beginning,” Ludmila Shmeleva, 70, told AFP while walking at Moscow’s Red Square. “I was not expecting this.

“We are fighting, and there is also an internal enemy who is stabbing you in the back, as President Putin said,” she said. “But we are walking around, relaxing, we don’t feel any danger.”

Prigozhin was last seen late Saturday in an SUV leaving Rostov-on-Don, where his fighters had seized a military headquarters, to the cheers of some local people. Some shook his hand through the car window.

Trucks carrying armoured vehicles with fighters on them followed his car.

Wagner's mercenaries pulled out of Rostov-on-Don a day after they seized the military base there

There were reports that Wagner fighters had come as close as 400 kilometres (250 miles) from Moscow, while Prigozhin himself claimed that “in 24 hours we got 200 kilometres from Moscow”.

The mutiny was the culmination of his long-standing feud with the Russian military’s top brass over the conduct of the Russian operation in Ukraine.

Putin had on Saturday denounced the revolt as treason, vowing to punish the perpetrators. He accused them of pushing Russia to the brink of civil war.

Later the same day however, he had accepted an agreement brokered by Belarus to avert Moscow’s most serious security crisis in decades.

- ‘Window of opportunity’? -

Within hours of Prigozhin’s announcement that his forces would return to base to avoid “spilling Russian blood”, the Kremlin said Putin’s former ally would leave for Belarus.

Analysts said Russia's government would be concerned by scenes of civilian onlookers cheering Wagner troops after their seized a southern military base

Russia would drop the “armed rebellion” charges against Prigozhin and not prosecute Wagner troops, it added.

Ukraine revelled in the chaos, stepping up its own counter-offensive 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 junior partner, was itself an embarrassment.

Wagner Group retreats

Asked if Prigozhin had been given a guarantee that he would be able to leave to Belarus, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told domestic media: “It is the word of the president of Russia.”

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.”

Russia insisted the rebellion had no impact on its faltering Ukraine campaign and said Sunday that it had repelled new offensive attacks by Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian soldiers leaving the front line Sunday said the revolt had not noticeably affected fighting around the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

Kyiv, however, said the unrest offered a “window of opportunity” for its long-awaited counter-offensive.

Ukraine also said Sunday that the death toll on this weekend’s strike on Kyiv had risen to five, after two more bodies were recovered from rubble.

- ‘Shows the divisions’ -

Wagner’s fighters, made up of volunteers and ex-security officers but also thousands of convicts, were often thrown into the front of Russia’s advance in Ukraine.

The outfit also conducts several operations in the Middle East and Africa, largely seen as having Moscow’s blessing.

“The crisis of institutions and trust was not obvious to many in Russia and the West yesterday. Today, it is clear,” independent political analyst Konstantin Kalachev told AFP.

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.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that Wagner’s short-lived uprising marked “a direct challenge to Putin’s authority” and “shows real cracks” in Russian state authority.

French President Emmanuel Macron also said the march on Moscow “shows the divisions that exist within the Russian camp, and the fragility of both its military and its auxillary forces”.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani told the daily 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.

Foreign Minister Qin Gang of China, which has maintained close ties with Putin since the Ukraine operation was launched, met Russia’s deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko in Beijing on Sunday.

Afterwards the Chinese foreign ministry called the mercenary revolt an “internal affair” for Russia while expressing support for Putin’s government.