After Brief Armed Rebellion, Mercenary Convoy Turns Back from Moscow via REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an emergency televised address in Moscow, Russia, June 24, 2023, in this still image taken from a video.

A stunning challenge to the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his handling of the war in Ukraine came to an abrupt end Saturday night when a column of renegade mercenaries reversed their lightning advance on Moscow about 120 miles from the gates of the capital.

About 24 hours after Putin’s erstwhile ally, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, swore that his Wagner Group fighters would force a change atop Russia’s military establishment, which he blames for bungling the Ukraine invasion, he turned his troops around under a surprise deal brokered by neighboring Belarus.

The agreement included a pledge from the Kremlin not to prosecute Prigozhin for his armed rebellion, according to presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who spoke to reporters late Saturday. In exchange, the Wagner chief halted his troops’ march on Moscow and withdrew fighters occupying key military installations in the south. As part of the deal, Prigozhin, who has spent months on the front lines in Ukraine, would travel to Belarus, Peskov said.

The guarantees were “the word of the president of Russia,” he said.

But while Putin appeared to avert his greatest crisis in more than 23 years as Russia’s supreme political leader, the brief but armed rebellion presented the starkest evidence yet that this brutal invasion of Ukraine had backfired, leading to instability at home and exposing his growing isolation from reality and weakness as a leader.

In an emergency address to the nation Saturday, Putin called the rebellion a “stab in the back” and “a betrayal,” promising tough action to stop the rebels, who he said were on a path to anarchy and division that threatened Russia’s hard-won military gains in Ukraine.

“Any internal turmoil is a deadly threat to our statehood . . . and our actions to defend our fatherland from this threat will be brutal,” Putin said in his speech. Those remarks initially appeared to close off any possibility of negotiation with Prigozhin, who for the first time issued a statement directly criticizing the president to whom he had previously shown unwavering loyalty.

Prigozhin, who became a billionaire and earned the nickname “Putin’s chef” through government catering contracts, later formed the Wagner Group as a network of private security contractors, deploying the mercenaries to conflicts in Syria, Libya, Mali and Sudan. He mobilized tens of thousands of his fighters over the past year to bolster Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.

Since then, he has won praise for his blunt, and often profane, acknowledgment of Russia’s battlefield setbacks. His rebellion seemed to confirm that Putin is surrounded by incompetent loyalists who are unwilling to tell the Russian leader difficult truths.

Insisting that he was “saving Russia,” Prigozhin claimed control of an important strategic command center and airfield in Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia that is a crucial logistical and administrative hub for the war in Ukraine.

Even as Putin spoke early Saturday, the column of Wagner fighters was making a dash up the M4 highway toward Moscow, with fighting reported in Voronezh, a region just north of Rostov on the road to Moscow. Lipetsk’s governor, Igor Artamonov, later confirmed that the Wagner convoy had crossed into his region.

Wagner’s surprise blitz seemed to stun military officials. It appeared to be an audacious attempt to topple Russia’s military leadership but not, Prigozhin insisted, Putin himself. Amid reports of explosions in Rostov and conflict in Voronezh, Russian security forces feverishly prepared defenses on the southwestern outskirts of Moscow, while authorities dug up roads near Lipetsk to try to block the Wagner column, according to regional officials.

The astonishing spectacle of Russians confronting Russians while Moscow faced the critical battlefield test of Ukraine’s counteroffensive left members of the hard-line nationalist, pro-war lobby – many of whom support Prigozhin – staggering and confused in comments on social media.

Without naming Prigozhin, Putin said the rebels were “traitors” and called on Wagner fighters to make “the only correct choice” and lay down arms.

“Those who prepared the military mutiny, who raise weapons against combat brothers, have betrayed Russia, and will pay for this. And those who are being pulled into the crime, I’m asking to not make this crucial, tragic, unrepeatable mistake. Make the one right choice – stop participating in criminal actions,” Putin said.

The confrontation had been brewing for months, but many analysts were taken aback by Putin’s failure to intervene earlier to prevent it from boiling over. Prigozhin had made clear his sense of humiliation and outrage over apparent efforts by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to curb, and potentially sideline, Wagner – even after the mercenary group took massive casualties in its long, bloody fight to capture the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

Wagner, known for its capability as an offensive unit, left the defense of Bakhmut to regular forces after it secured the city – but in the weeks that followed, the mercenary group had not been given any important new role, nor did it win particularly high praise from the Kremlin or other officials.

A row with Shoigu over his subsequent insistence that Wagner sign a contract with the Defense Ministry putting the group under his control, deepened the struggle, especially after Putin appeared to side with Shoigu on the matter.

“They wanted to disband Wagner,” Prigozhin said in an audio message confirming his agreement to turn back the convoy. “We set out on June 23 on a ‘March of Justice.’ In a day, we marched just short of 200 kilometers [124 miles] away from Moscow. During this time, we have not shed a single drop of the blood of our fighters.”

But he acknowledged that if Wagner continued, it would lose fighters

“Now is the moment when blood can be shed,” Prigozhin said. “Realizing all the responsibility for the fact that Russian blood will be shed, we are turning our columns around and leaving in the opposite direction of our field camps, according to the plan,” he said, in an apparent reference to the agreement brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

A video whose location was verified by The Washington Post late Saturday purportedly showed Prigozhin leaving the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don. In the video, a vehicle carrying a man who appears to be Prigozhin stops outside the base for residents who wave and wish him “good luck.”

But just the day before, Prigozhin had declared an open conflict with Russia’s military leadership and called on Russians to join 25,000 Wagner troops against Shoigu, the defense minister, and other top commanders.

“We won’t be humiliated. We have targets. We’re all ready to die, all 25,000 of us, and 25,000 more after that,” Prigozhin said in an audio message posted on Telegram on Saturday morning. In a later post, he said Putin was “deeply mistaken” in asserting that members of the group were traitors, describing himself and Wagner fighters as patriots who “do not want the country to continue to live in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”

Prigozhin claimed on Friday evening that the Russian military had carried out a strike on a Wagner camp and said he would lead a “march of justice” against his enemies among the leadership of the Russian Defense Ministry, while denying allegations from at least one top general that he was attempting a coup.

By Saturday morning, Prigozhin and his fighters entered Rostov-on-Don, crossing a heavily fortified region of southern Russia with apparent ease – despite an arrest warrant against Prigozhin from Russia’s main security agency, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, which late Friday accused Prigozhin of “incitement to armed rebellion” and said it had opened a criminal case.

Prigozhin said he had taken control of the main Russian military command base in Rostov and told two Russian military commanders that he would blockade Rostov and send his forces to Moscow unless he could confront his enemies: Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces.

Prigozhin told two senior military commanders that his forces had shot down three Russian military helicopters that fired on the Wagner column, and he threatened further strikes. “We’ll bring them all down if you keep sending them,” he said, according to video of the exchange with officials who appeared to be Col. Gen. Yunus-bek Yevkurov, a deputy defense minister, and Lt. Gen. Vladimir Aleksxeyev, deputy chief of Russia’s military intelligence.

Prigozhin claimed to control all major military objects in Rostov-on-Don – including the main military airfield – but insisted that the headquarters and airfield were continuing operations against Ukraine “as usual.”

“We took control to ensure there were no air force strikes against us but against Ukraine,” he said.

Analysts had said Prigozhin’s open criticism was permitted by Putin as a way of venting dissatisfaction over the course of the war, so long as the Wagner leader did not openly criticize the Russian president and remained firmly in the “patriotic camp.”

But by Friday morning, Prigozhin had issued his biggest challenge yet, as he contradicted Putin’s main pretexts for invading Ukraine, declaring that Russia had faced no extraordinary security threat from Ukraine and that Russian military officials had deceived Putin into going to war.

The war, Prigozhin claimed, was designed by Russian officials and oligarchs who had plundered two separatist regions in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, for years, but grew greedy and wanted to plunder all of Ukraine.

A U.S. intelligence official described the current situation as “volatile” and said tensions between Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry worsened in recent weeks.

A senior Ukrainian official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a quickly developing situation, said Prigozhin probably aimed to topple Shoigu.

The Ukrainian official said Prigozhin’s Wagner forces lacked the strength and numbers to prevail in a direct fight with the Russian military. “Prigozhin is not bluffing, but he does not want to fight with the army,” the Ukrainian official said.