What’s happening in Russia? Kremlin says Wagner chief to leave for Belarus after rebellion

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The head of the Wagner mercenary group said his troops were reversing after they had advanced toward Moscow in a widely watched test of Russian President Vladimir Putin's 24-year grip on power.

"We will turn around our columns and leave in the opposite direction to the field camps, according to the plan," Yevgeny Prigozhin said in an audio statement Saturday.

Prigozhin said he was ending his insurrection because the moment arrived when Russian "blood might be shed." After negotiations with Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, Prigozhin said he was halting the rebellion.

Earlier Saturday, Putin pledged "decisive actions" Saturday to halt what he described as a treasonous, armed rebellion by the Wagner group, whose insurrection had threatened to end Putin's 24-year rule. Prigozhin had vowed to "go all the way" to Moscow to topple Russia's military leadership.

The Kremlin later said Prigozhin would not be prosecuted and would leave Russia for Belarus under the deal brokered by Lukashenko, a Putin ally.

The Wagner group is a private military army that's been fighting alongside Russia's regular army in Ukraine, but tensions over how the war has been fought have been building for months.

On Friday, Prigozhin accused Moscow of launching a deadly military strike on his troops. Prigozhin claimed Saturday his forces had crossed into Russia from Ukraine and reached Rostov-on-Don, home to Russia's military headquarters for the southern region that oversees the fighting in Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers fire toward Russian position on the frontline in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, Saturday, June 24, 2023.
Ukrainian soldiers fire toward Russian position on the frontline in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, Saturday, June 24, 2023.

Prigozhin claimed his forces had military facilities in the city under their control, including the air field. Videos posted on social media showed military vehicles, including tanks, on the streets, though the atmosphere appears relatively calm. Putin has appeared to acknowledge that Russia's military has lost control of Rostov-on-Don and there are indications Wagner fighters have moved north to Voronezh, about 320 miles from Moscow.

In his address, which lasted about five minutes, Putin described the mutiny as “a stab in the back of our country and our people.” He vowed to punish those responsible. He did not mention Prigozhin by name. Russia's leader said Prigozhin's actions were a "criminal adventure" and a "grave crime." But by Saturday afternoon, the Kremlin said that Prigozhin would be allowed to live in Belarus and that soldiers that participated in the attempted coup would receive security guarantees and not face prosecution.

Who is Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko?

Alexander Lukashenko, often described as Europe's last dictator, is the disputed president of Belarus. He has led the country for nearly 29 years.

He began his sixth term in office after an August 2020 election that was widely regarded as fraudulent by Western countries and led hundreds of thousands of Belarusians to take to the streets in protest. Lukashenko is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has supported Russia since the beginning of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya ran against Lukashenko in the 2020, but was forced to flee the country into exile in Europe after Lukashenko insisted he won the election.

-Miles J. Herszenhorn

Wagner chief Prigozhin to "leave for Belarus," Putin spokesman says

Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said in a statement that a criminal case against Wagner Group leader Prigozhin will be dropped and he will "leave for Belarus."

The announcement comes hours after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko brokered a deal with Prigozhin to end his attempted armed rebellion against the Russian government.

Prigozhin said on Saturday that he arrived within 200 kilometers of Moscow before he agreed to turn around and leave for the opposite direction in order to prevent a bloody conflict between his Russian paramilitary organization and the Russian army.

Peskov also said that Wagner soldiers who participated in the armed rebellion would  receive "security guarantees" and not face prosecution.

-Miles J. Herszenhorn

Zelenskyy taunts Putin in Russian

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy taunted Russian President Vladimir Putin about the failed coup d'état in Russia, during his daily video update about the war in Ukraine.

Speaking in his native Russian, something Zelenskyy has rarely done since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion last year, the Ukrainian president claimed −without offering evidence ∸ that Putin fled Moscow after the start of an armed uprising by the Wagner mercenary group.

"The man from the Kremlin is obviously very afraid and probably hiding somewhere, not showing himself," Zelenskyy said. "I am sure that he is no longer in Moscow."

"He knows what he is afraid of because he himself created this threat," Zelenskyy added.

Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said earlier on Saturday that Putin was in Moscow and working from the Kremlin.

Zelenskyy also claimed that Ukraine's victory in the war is assured.

"The longer he can run between his bunkers, the more you all will lose," he said. "All of you who are connected with Russia."

-Miles J. Herszenhorn

Zelenskyy: 'The bosses of Russia do not control anything'

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote in a statement on Twitter that today's attempted coup d'état by Prigozhin demonstrates that "the bosses of Russia do not control anything."

Zelenskyy described the internal political situation in Russia as "complete chaos," adding that there is a "complete absence of any predictability."

Zelenskyy also insisted that Ukraine's defense capabilities will not be affected by the crisis in Russia.

"Ukraine will definitely be able to protect Europe from any Russian forces, and it doesn't matter who commands them," he added.

-Miles J. Herszenhorn

Wagner turns on Russia. Is it a coup?

Not according to Prigozhin.

In a Telegram post, he described his group's actions as a "march for justice." He said Putin's comments about a betrayal were "deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our homeland.”

Ukrainian officials declined to comment directly on whether Prigozhin was leading an insurrection against Putin.

However, Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine's top military intelligence official, told Ukrainian TV on Saturday that the conflict between Russia's military leadership and Prigozhin is “a frontal clash of lies and truth.”

Budanov said that since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Prigozhin, whether "you like him or not," has been largely accurately pointing to miscalculations, poor equipment, lack of training, low morale and other problems faced by Russia's regular army, while Russia’s defense ministry tells "mainly lies."

In an intelligence update, Britain’s defense ministry described the apparent rebellion as the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times. Though it also noted in a separate update that there was limited evidence of fighting between Wagner and Russian security forces.

“Over the coming hours, the loyalty of Russia’s security forces, and especially the Russian National Guard, will be key to how the crisis plays out,” it said.

Adam Hodge, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, said President Joe Biden has been briefed. "We are monitoring the situation and are consulting with allies and partners on these developments."

- Kim Hjelmgaard

What does this mean for Putin?

Prigozhin's actions likely reflect a broader consensus by Russia’s elites that the invasion of Ukraine was a mistake that is weakening their country and that Putin needs to go, said Kurt Volker, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

“Bottom line: Putin has left himself no way out. As long as he is in power, he will fight. And that will kill the Russian state. So this means his removal from power becomes inescapable if Russia is to survive as a state,” said Volker, the former U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations from 2017 to 2019.

“We still don’t know what mechanisms may arise, but the writing is on the wall,” Volker told USA TODAY. “Going after Prigozhin is a finger in the dike. The bigger picture is the end of Putinism.”

- Josh Meyer

Why chaos in Russia?

U.S. officials observing the chaos unfolding in Russia Saturday have reached few conclusions about the rupture between Putin and Prigozhin. One widely held belief is that Prigozhin won’t survive, said a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. That leaves open the question of who will lead his brutal band of mercenaries.

Prigozhin’s death would leave his force of tens of thousands of armed men, many conscripted convicts, without a leader. The Russian military leadership has been unable to properly lead and care for its own troops during its 16-month-long invasion of Ukraine, the official said. That makes it unclear how, or even if, Russia could absorb as many as 25,000 Wagner mercenaries.

For the moment, having those mercenaries fighting inside Russia relieves some pressure on Ukraine, the official said. Russia has relied on Wagner forces to do much of its heavy fighting, particularly over the winter and spring near the besieged city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s east.

- Tom Vanden Brook

What are the origins of the Prigozhin-Russia feud?

Prigozhin was once such a close ally of Russia's leader he earned the nickname "Putin's chef," a reference to the lucrative catering and construction contracts he won with the Kremlin and Russia's defense ministry.

Wagner has worked on behalf of the Russian government in Syria, Libya, across Africa from the Central African Republic to Sudan, and for the last 18 months in Ukraine.

'It's hard, but they're holding on': On the ground in Ukraine, the war depends on U.S. weapons

Prigozhin's relationship with Russia's military has steadily deteriorated amid a grinding battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. He's blamed Russian military bureaucracy and incompetence for high casualty rates among Wagner fighters in Bakhmut and his inability to fully capture the city.

In a Telegram post on Saturday, Prigozhin said he had 25,000 Wagners fighters "ready to die" in support of his "march for justice." Moscow has denied striking Wagner forces.

- Kim Hjelmgaard

Moscow mayor declares Monday day of no work

With Wagner forces staging an armed rebellion and attempting to make their way to Russia's capital, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin asked most Moscow residents to stay home on Monday.

Sobyanin wrote in a statement that he designated Monday non-work day to "minimize risks." The non-work day will not apply to government and city employees.

Sobyanin also asked Moscow residents to refrain from traveling in the city on Monday and warned of street closures.

-Miles J. Herszenhorn

Moscow braces for arrival of Wagner troops

With Wagner mercenary troops headed to Moscow, the government officials took measures to block the roads leading to the city.

Videos showed dozens of large orange trucks parked on major roads in an attempt to prevent the Wagner mercenary group from reaching the Russian capital.

Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has declared a counter-terrorism operation was underway in the city and asked residents to stay home and avoid travel.

-Miles J. Herszenhorn

Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?

Prigozhin, 61, is the head of the Wagner mercenary group, a paramilitary organization that was supporting the Russian government in its war against Ukraine before Prigozhin apparently turned against Russia's military.

Prigozhin was born in the former Soviet Union and served ten years in prison when he was younger. After he was freed from jail, he ran a hot dog stand before becoming the owner of several fancy restaurants in Saint Petersburg. His restaurants brought Prigozhin into close contact with Putin.

Prigozhin has admitted to being the founder of the Internet Research Agency, a network of companies that interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He was indicted in 2018 by a U.S. grand jury for interfering in American political elections. In 2021, Prigozhin was placed on the FBI’s “most wanted” list.

- Miles Herszenhorn

How large is Wagner group?

The true scale is not known.

In December the U.S. estimated Wagner's total fighting size in Ukraine at 50,000.

But many of its personnel there have since been killed on the battlefield and Prigozhin has appeared to suggest there are now about 25,000 Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine.

It is estimated to have tens of thousands of more mercenaries all over the world fighting on behalf of governments from Syria to the Central African Republic.

- Kim Hjelmgaard

Governments, conflict-watchers monitoring Russia developments closely

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zekenskyy weighed in with comments posted on his Telegram channel, saying “Russia (has) used propaganda to mask its weakness and the stupidity of its government. And now there is so much chaos that no lie can hide it.” Zelenskyy added that "the longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain and problems it will have for itself later."

Here's what some others, in and outside government, are saying on Twitter, Telegram, in emailed newsletters, statements and from other sources:

  • China state media: "The Russian Armed Forces have received the necessary order to neutralize those who organized the armed rebellion of the Wagner private military group."

  • Charles Michel, European Council president: "This is clearly an internal Russian issue."

  • Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechen leader and Putin ally: "I appeal to the fighters, the patriots of our motherland. Don't give in to provocations. Whatever aims you are given, whatever promises are made to you, the safety of our state and cohesion of Russian society are the most important thing right now."

  • Alexander S. Vindman, former director of the U.S. national security council and an expert on Ukraine and Russia: "The seizure of the (Rostov-on-Don) SMD HQ and the potential consolidation of control over bases in the area has taken the insurrection into very dangerous territory."

  • Phillips P. O'Brien, strategic security expert at the University of St Andrews: "At first this attempt by Prigozhin seemed almost impulsive and bound to fail (and it still might −and probably should if the Russian army stays loyal to Putin). However, what does seem to be the case now is that this is a well-planned operation."

  • British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called an emergency national security meeting of the nation's so-called Cobra unit to discuss the unfolding situation in Russia, according to the BBC.

- Kim Hjelmgaard

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warns Wagner rebellion is attempt to 'seize power.'

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told the state-run outlet RIA Novosti that an armed rebellion staged by Wagner chief Prigozhin is an attempted coup and warned that it could have global repercussions.

"In the history of mankind, there has never been such a thing that the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons was under the control of bandits," he said. "Such a crisis will obviously not be limited to one country. The world will be brought to the brink of destruction."

Medvedev, a close Putin ally, served as president of Russia from 2008 to 2012. After Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, Medvedev was appointed prime minister. He now currently serves as deputy chairman of Russia's security council.

"Obviously, this is a well-thought-out and planned operation, the purpose of which is to seize power in the country," he said.

-Miles J. Herszenhorn

Prigozhin claims Wagner reached Rostov 'without a single shot' fired

Prigozhin claimed in an audio clip published on Telegram that when his mercenaries captured the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don they did so "without a single shot" being fired.

Prigozhin also claimed that the Wagner mercenaries were welcomed into Rostov by residents of the city.

"There are people on the street who unfurl the flags of the PMC Wagner," Prigozhin said.

Prigozhin's claims could not immediately be verified.

- Miles Herszenhorn

What Zelenskyy is saying about Putin vs. Wagner

Zelenskyy charged that the uprising in Russia is a problem of Putin’s own making and a consequence of his months-long assault on Kyiv.

“For a long time, Russia used propaganda to mask its weakness and the stupidity of its government. And now there is so much chaos that no lie can hide it,” Zelenskyy wrote in a tweet.

Zelenskyy said the Russian leader had humiliated himself by accepting drones from Iran that the U.S. says are being used to attack Ukraine.

“Russia's weakness is obvious. Full-scale weakness,” Zelenskyy said. “And the longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain, and problems it will have for itself later.”

- Francesca Chambers

How far is Lipetsk from Moscow?

Around 450 kilometers or 280 miles.

The Wagner forces staging an armed rebellion against Russia’s army have reached the Lipetsk Oblast, a region that is approximately a six hour drive from Moscow.

It is still unclear, however, if the mercenary group will succeed in entering the city of Moscow.

-Miles J. Herszenhorn

Where is Putin now?

His spokesman Dmitry Peskov says he's "working in the Kremlin" in Moscow, according to TASS, a Russia state news agency.

Still, with a powerful paramilitary group just a few hundred miles outside Russia's capital, and apparently quickly advancing, the rumor mill has been in overdrive on social media.

Some Twitters users and media noted, citing the FlightRadar plane tracking service, that Putin's official presidential jet − identification number Il96-300PU − took off from Moscow at 2:16 p.m. local time. The data on FlightRadar do not indicate where his plane went, or whether he's on it.

He's known to have several lavish palaces including a sprawling villa on the Black Sea.

- Kim Hjelmgaard

Silenced by poison, bullets, jail: Navalny, Nemtsov and more Putin critics

More: Wagner mercenary group boss threatens to pull paramilitary troops from Bakhmut

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Wagner group backs down from coup attempt in Russia: Recap