Russian mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin ordered his fighters Saturday to halt their advance on Moscow, turn their convoy around and return to their bases in Ukraine to avoid bloodshed.
The office of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced that Lukashenko had negotiated a deal with the Wagner Group chief, with the approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that Prigozhin had agreed to de-escalate the situation.
In an audio message released by his press service, Prigozhin said: “They wanted to disband the Wagner military company. We embarked on a march of justice on June 23. In 24 hours, we got to within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of Moscow. In this time, we did not spill a single drop of our fighters’ blood.
“Now the moment has come when blood could be spilled. Understanding responsibility [for the chance] that Russian blood will be spilled on one side, we are turning our columns around and going back to field camps as planned,” he said in the audio message on his channel on the messaging app Telegram.
Prigozhin didn’t say whether the Kremlin has responded to his demand to oust Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu or what, if anything, Lukashenko had promised him.
Moscow had braced for the arrival of the private army led by the rebellious commander. And Putin had vowed he would face harsh consequences. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.
Earlier Saturday, the Russian mercenary fighters were seen passing the Russian city of Voronezh, rapidly advancing toward Moscow Saturday after they apparently took control of Rostov-on-Don, a city of more than a million people close to the border with Ukraine.
In Rostov, which serves as the main rear logistical hub for Russia’s entire invasion force, residents milled about, recording on mobile phones, as Wagner Group mercenary fighters in armored vehicles and battle tanks took up positions, Reuters reported.
Prigozhin claimed that his fighters entered the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don without a shot fired and that no one was killed during what he calls a “march of justice.” His claims could not be verified.
Putin had vowed to crush what he called an armed mutiny, which he compared to Russia’s Civil War a century ago.
A Reuters journalist saw Russian army helicopters open fire at an armed Wagner column, with troop carriers and at least one tank on a flatbed truck, while advancing past the city of Voronezh. The city is about 520 kilometers south of Moscow.
In Moscow, there was increased security on the streets. Red Square was blocked off by metal barriers.
“Excessive ambitions and vested interests have led to treason,” Putin said in a televised address, comparing the insurrection at a time of war abroad to Russia’s revolution and a civil war unleashed during World War One.
U.S., allies react
U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom on Saturday, the White House said.
“The leaders discussed the situation in Russia. They also affirmed their unwavering support for Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement.
Biden was briefed about the unfolding situation in Russia by his national security team on Saturday morning, the White House said, adding that the president will continue to be briefed throughout the day.
Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with foreign ministers from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the EU to discuss the ongoing situation in Russia, according to a statement issued Saturday by the State Department.
Blinken reiterated that support by the United States for Ukraine will not change and added that the U.S. will stay in close coordination with allies and partners.
The top U.S. military officer, Army General Mark Milley, canceled his scheduled visit to the Middle East on Saturday due to the situation in Russia, his spokesperson said.
Milley, who was meant to travel to Israel and Jordan, also spoke on Saturday with his Ukrainian counterpart, Milley’s office said in a separate statement.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Twitter, ” Anyone who chooses the path of evil destroys themselves. … 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.”
In announcing the rebellion on Friday, Prigozhin said he wanted to punish 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.”
“The Minister of Defense arrived specially in Rostov to carry out an operation to destroy the Wagner PMC (private military company),” he wrote on his Telegram social media channel.
Russia’s Defense Ministry has denied the allegations.
Russia’s Federal Security Services (FSB) then opened a criminal investigation against Prigozhin, accusing him of armed mutiny, citing the National Anti-Terrorism Committee. The crime is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, according to Russia’s chief prosecutor.
The NAC, which is part of the FSB, insisted there is no basis to the allegations made by Prigozhin earlier Friday that the Russian Ministry of Defense conducted an airstrike against Wagner bases, killing 2,000 of his fighters.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.