MOSCOW: Wagner mercenaries headed back to their base on Sunday after Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to allow their leader to avoid treason charges and accept exile in neighboring Belarus.
The agreement halted an extraordinary crisis — a private army led by Putin’s former close ally Yevgeny Prigozhin trying to 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 on 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 armored vehicles with fighters on them followed his car.
From assessing geolocated footage, Washington-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War said Wagner forces came as close as 330 kilometers from the Russian capital, while Prigozhin himself claimed that “in 24 hours we got 200 kilometers 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.
Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky and US President Joe Biden discussed the revolt on Sunday, ahead of a NATO summit in Lithuania next month.
“The world must put pressure on Russia until international order is restored,” Zelensky said on Twitter, adding that he had again invoked the possibility of “long-range weapons” for Ukraine as it pursues a counter-offensive against Russian occupiers.
‘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.
Russia will drop the “armed rebellion” charges against Prigozhin and not prosecute Wagner troops, it added.
Ukraine reveled in the chaos, stepping up its counter-offensive against Russian forces, with analysts saying 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.
Zelensky’s senior aide Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that “Prigozhin humiliated Putin/the state and showed that there is no longer a monopoly on violence.”
But Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic credited Putin’s “strong reaction” with bringing about the abrupt de-escalation, state-run Russian news agency TASS said, citing an interview with Serbian television channel Pink.
“No one else alive today would have been able to stop it,” he was quoted as saying.
Russia, meanwhile, 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 Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.
“Most people, most military, understand very well that the circus from Russia is still here,” said Nazar, a 26-year-old bearded soldier, parked at a service station on a road leading out of the Bakhmut area.
Kyiv, however, said the unrest offered a “window of opportunity” for its long-awaited counter-offensive.
‘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.
“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 auxiliary forces.”
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 and expressed support for Putin’s government.