Wagner chief halts march on Moscow to avoid ‘shedding Russian blood’

24 June 2023, 19:04

Russia Ukraine Prigozhin
Russia Ukraine Prigozhin. Picture: PA

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko said he had negotiated a deal with Yevgeny Prigozhin after discussing the issue with Vladimir Putin.

The head of the Wagner force said 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 as Moscow braced for the arrival of the private army led by the rebellious commander.

President Vladimir Putin had vowed he would face harsh consequences.

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

He did not say whether the Kremlin has responded to his demand to oust Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

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

Mr Prigozhin has accepted Mr Lukashenko’s offer to halt the Wagner group’s advance and further steps to de-escalate the tensions, Mr Lukashenko’s office said, adding that the proposed settlement contains security guarantees for Wagner troops.

(PA Graphics)

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

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

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

Authorities declared a “counter-terrorist 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 movement of the Wagner mercenary army. Access to Red Square was closed, two major museums were evacuated and a park was shut.

Yevgeny Prigozhin
Yevgeny Prigozhin said the move was a ‘march of justice’ (Prigozhin Press Service via AP)

Mr Prigozhin’s private army appeared to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city 660 miles south of Moscow that runs Russian operations in Ukraine, the UK’s Ministry of Defence said.

Wagner troops and equipment were also in Lipetsk province, about 225 miles south of Moscow, where authorities “are taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the population”, said regional governor Igor Artamonov, via Telegram.

The dramatic developments came exactly 16 months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine 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 Zelensky 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 Mr Prigozhin’s arrest on Friday night after he declared the armed rebellion.

Mr Prigozhin had 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.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin vowed that the rebellion would be punished (Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Mr Prigozhin’s private army has been fighting alongside regular Russian troops in Ukraine. His goals were not immediately clear but the rebellion marked 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,” Mr Prigozhin said.

He 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,” Mr 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”.

A Russian tank
A woman poses for a photo at a Russian armoured vehicle, with writing reading ‘Siberia’, parked in a street in Rostov-on-Don (AP)

The rebellion comes as Russia is “fighting the toughest battle for its future”, Mr 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,” Mr Putin said.

A Muscovite who gave only his first name of Khachik called the situation “scary”.

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

Russian servicemen
Troops have been seen on the streets in Rostov-on-Don (Vasily Deryugin, Kommersant Publishing House via AP)

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

In announcing the rebellion, Mr Prigozhin said he wanted to punish Defence 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”.

Mr Prigozhin said his forces shot down a Russian military helicopter that fired on a civilian convoy.

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

The Defence Ministry denied attacking the Wagner camps.

Mr Prigozhin, 62, 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 US 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 Mr Putin’s address, in which he called for unity, officials sought to reiterate their allegiance to the Kremlin and urged Mr Prigozhin to back down.

Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, said lawmakers “stand for the consolidation of forces″ and support Mr 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 Mr Prigozhin in his criticism of the military, also expressed his full support of Mr Putin’s “every word”.

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

By Press Association

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