Wagner chief to leave Russia for Belarus in deal that ends armed insurrection, Kremlin says

In a conference call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said an agreement was struck with Prigozhin.

ByTara John, Ivana Kottasová and Rob Picheta, CNN
Sunday, June 25, 2023
Prigozhin to go to Belarus in deal to end insurrection, Moscow says
Putin had vowed earlier to punish those behind the armed uprising led by his onetime protege, whose forces seized a key military facility in southern Russia before advancing on the capital.

MOSCOW -- Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner paramilitary group, has agreed to leave Russia for Belarus, the Kremlin said Saturday, in a deal apparently brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that ends an armed insurrection, which marked the gravest threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin's authority in decades.

In a conference call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said an agreement was struck with Prigozhin.

"You will ask me what will happen to Prigozhin personally?" Peskov said. "The criminal case will be dropped against him. He himself will go to Belarus." Peskov added that the Kremlin was unaware of the mercenary's current whereabouts.

The Wagner boss had earlier turned his troops around "toward our field camps, in accordance with the plan." Peskov said those troops would face no "legal action" for marching to Moscow, and Wagner fighters will sign contracts with Russia's Ministry of Defense.

The announcement defuses a crisis that began when Wagner troops took control of a key military facility in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and some fighters advanced towards the capital.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, records his video addresses in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023.
(Prigozhin Press Service via AP)

Prigozhin has been publicly critical of Russia's military leadership and their handling of the war in Ukraine - with few consequences. But he crossed numerous red lines with Putin over the weekend.

A somber-looking Russian president addressed the nation and called Wagner's actions "a stab in the back of our country and our people."

The president described events as an insurrection, which he vowed to defeat, and Moscow began to scale up its security measures.

But by Saturday evening, Prigozhin's calculus appeared to have changed, and the mercenary said his troops, who were 124 miles (200 kilometers) from Moscow, were stopping their advance in order to avoid bloodshed.

Videos, authenticated and geolocated by CNN, also showed Prigozhin and Wagner forces withdrawing from their positions at Russian military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don.

In the video, Prigozhin is seen sitting in the backseat of a vehicle. Crowds cheer and the vehicle comes to a stop as an individual approaches it and shakes Prigozhin's hand.

Stunning escalation

Saturday's dramatic events come off the back of Prigozhin's very public and months-long feud with Russia's military leadership. He has previously accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia's top general, Valery Gerasimov, of not giving his forces ammunition and was critical of their handling of the conflict, but has always defended the reasoning for the war.

On Friday, Prigozhin accused Russian forces of striking a Wagner military camp and killing "a huge amount" of his fighters - a claim Russia's Ministry of Defense has denied and called an "informational provocation."

The private military chief seemingly built influence with Putin over the course of the conflict, with his Wagner forces taking a leading role in the labored but ultimately successful assault on Bakhmut earlier this year. The capture of that city was a rare Russian gain in Ukraine in recent months, boosting Prigozhin's profile further.

But it appears that Prigozhin had turned not merely against the military leadership's handling of the invasion of Ukraine, but also against the longtime Russian leader and his strategy.

On Friday, he said Moscow invaded Ukraine under false pretenses devised by the Russian Ministry of Defense, and that Russia is actually losing ground on the battlefield.

"There are 25,000 of us and we are going to find out why there is such chaos in the country. There are 25,000 of us waiting as a tactical reserve and a strategic reserve. It's the whole army and the whole country, everyone who wants to, join us. We must end this debacle," he said on Telegram.

Wagner upped the gambit and went on to take control of military facilities in Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh, a city that lies some 600 kilometers (372 miles) to the north of Rostov. Russia's domestic intelligence service, FSB, opened a criminal case against Prighozhin for his threats, accusing him of calling for "an armed rebellion."

Wagner troops were then reported to be moving towards the capital, prompting a major security operation in the Moscow region and a counter-terrorist regime being put in place, according to Russian officials.

Russian security forces in body armor and equipped with automatic weapons took a position near a highway linking Moscow with southern Russia, according to photos published by Russian media. Monday was declared a non-working day and public and other large-scale events have been suspended until July 1 in the Moscow region, according to Russian state run media TASS.

During his speech Saturday, Putin said Wagner's "betrayal" and "any actions that fracture our unity," are "a stab in the back of our country and our people."

Responding to Putin's speech, Prigozhin said on Telegram that the president was "deeply mistaken."

"We are patriots of our Motherland, we fought and are fighting," he said in audio messages.The Wagner chief claimed his forces seized the Russian Southern Military Headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don "without firing a single shot," suggesting that "the country supports us."

The Rostov base plays a key role in Russia's war on Ukraine, due to its proximity to the countries' shared border.

The temperature cooled following the deal apparently brokered by Belarus' leader. Yet Prighozhin has provided scant details about his agreement to about-face.

"If you ask what kind of guarantee there is that Prigozhin will be able to leave for Belarus, this is the word of the President of Russia," Peskov's office said.

When asked what position Prigozhin would take in Belarus, Peskov said he "cannot answer the question." Peskov said Lukashenko was able to draw on a personal relationship with Prigozhin to broker the deal.

"The fact is that Alexander Grigoryevich (Lukashenko) has known Prigozhin personally for a long time, for about 20 years," he said. "And it was his personal proposal, which was agreed with Putin. We are grateful to the President of Belarus for these efforts."

Significant challenge

Many top Russian officials had rallied to Putin's side over the past day. Russian intelligence official, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Alekseev, posted a video about Prigozhin's actions that day, describing it as a coup attempt.

Sergei Naryshkin, who heads Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, described the events as an "attempted armed rebellion."

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, another key player in the war, spoke of a "vile betrayal" by Prigozhin on Telegram. "The rebellion must be crushed, and if this requires harsh measures, then we are ready!" he said.

Russian officials said detachments of Chechen special forces had been seen in Rostov to suppress the rebellion. However, CNN was unable to independently confirm that Chechen units have arrived in Rostov.

The FSB also responded on Friday, urging Wagner fighters to detain their leader and opening a criminal case against the militia boss accusing him of "calling for an armed rebellion."

As Russia's invasion of Ukraine stalled earlier this year, top US officials said they saw indications of tensions between the Kremlin and the Prigozhin. Officials said the US determined as early as January there was an internal power struggle underway and have been gathering and closely monitoring intelligence on the volatile dynamic ever since.

But US and Western officials are being careful not to weigh in on the events because of how Putin could weaponize any perceived outside involvement in the escalating crisis, sources familiar with the administration's thinking told CNN.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has warned Western countries against using Prigozhin's rebellion "to achieve Russophobic goals."

The European Union, which borders Russia, activated its crisis response center to coordinate between member nations in reaction to the developments in Russia.

Meanwhile, Ukraine took advantage of Russia's chaotic security situation on Saturday, launching simultaneous counter-offensives in multiple directions, Hanna Maliar, Ukraine's deputy Defense Minister, said in a Telegram post.

A spokesperson for the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine earlier told CNN that Ukraine will benefit from the events in Russia. "The fact that Prigozhin took all his Wagner fighters into Russia now will definitely have an effect on our frontline," Serhii Cherevatyi said.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine's Presidential Administration, said Prigozhin's escalation "almost nullified" Putin and humiliated Russia, showing "there is no longer a monopoly on violence."

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