A short-lived revolt by a rebellious Russian mercenary commander ended with his troops beating a retreat, but the extraordinary challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s two-decade hold on power could have long-term consequences for his rule and his war in Ukraine.
Putin’s image as a tough leader had already been badly bruised by the Ukraine war, which has dragged on for 16 months and claimed huge numbers of Russian troops. Saturday’s march toward Moscow by forces under the command of his onetime protege, Yevgeny Prigozhin, exposed further weaknesses, analysts said.
It also meant some of the best forces fighting for Russia in Ukraine were pulled from that battlefield: Prigozhin’s own Wagner troops and Chechen ones sent to stop them.
After calling for an armed rebellion aimed at ousting Russia’s defense minister, Prigozhin and his fighters appeared to seize control of the Russian military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don that oversee fighting in Ukraine.
They then advanced towards Moscow largely unhindered. Russian media reported that they downed several helicopters and a military communications plane. The Defense Ministry has not commented.
They were halted only by a deal to send Prigozhin to neighboring Belarus, which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Charges against him of mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, and Prigozhin ordered his troops back to their field camps.
The government also said it would not prosecute Wagner fighters who took part, while those who did not join in would offered contracts by the Defense Ministry.
Though Putin had vowed earlier to punish those behind the armed uprising, Peskov defended the reversal, saying Putin’s “highest goal” was “to avoid bloodshed and internal confrontation with unpredictable results.”
That amnesty stands in contrast to the fines and jail sentences Russian authorities have meted out to thousands of people who have criticized the war, even obliquely.
And while it ended the immediate crisis, it may have set in motion a longer-term one, analysts and observers said.
“For a dictatorship built on the idea of unchallenged power, this was an extreme humiliation, and it’s hard to see the genie of doubt ever being forced back into the bottle,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “So, if Prigozhin might have lost in the short term, Putin is likely to be the long-term loser.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that the challenge to Putin came from within.
“I think we’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian façade,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We have all sorts of new questions that Putin is going to have to address in the weeks and months ahead.”
Prigozhin, who sent out a series of audio and video updates during his revolt, has gone silent since the Kremlin announced the deal.
It’s not clear if he’s in Belarus yet or whether any of his Wagner troops would follow him.
In response to questions from The Associated Press, Prigozhin’s press office replied that he could not reply immediately but “will answer the questions when he gets a normal connection.”
Video taken by The Associated Press in Rostov-on-Don showed people cheering Wagner troops as they departed. Some ran to shake hands with Prigozhin, who was riding in an SUV.
The regional governor later said that all of the troops had left the city. Russian news agencies also reported that Lipetsk authorities confirmed Wagner forces had left that region, which sits on the road to Moscow from Rostov.
Moscow had braced for the arrival of the Wagner forces by erecting checkpoints with armored vehicles and troops on the city’s southern edge. About 3,000 Chechen soldiers were pulled from fighting in Ukraine and rushed there early Saturday, state television in Chechnya reported. Russian troops armed with machine guns put up checkpoints on Moscow’s southern outskirts. Crews dug up sections of highways to slow the march.
By Sunday afternoon, the troops had withdrawn from the capital, and people swarmed the streets and flocked to cafes. Traffic returned to normal and roadblocks and checkpoints were removed, but Red Square remained close to visitors. On highways leading to Moscow, crews repaired roads ripped up just hours earlier in panic.
Anchors on state-controlled television stations cast the deal ending the crisis as a show of Putin’s wisdom and aired footage of Wagner troops retreating from Rostov-on-Don to the relief of local residents who feared a bloody battle for control of the city.
People there who were interviewed by Channel 1 hailed Putin’s role.
But the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War warned that “the Kremlin now faces a deeply unstable equilibrium.”
The “deal is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution,” wrote the institute, which has tracked the war in Ukraine from the beginning.
Prigozhin had demanded the ouster of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom Prigozhin has long criticized in withering terms for his conduct of the war in Ukraine.
The U.S. had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time. That conflicts with Prigozhin’s claim that his rebellion was a response to an attack on his camps in Ukraine on Friday by the Russian military.
In announcing the rebellion, Prigozhin accused Russian forces of targeting the Wagner camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery. He alleged that Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, ordered the attacks following a meeting with Shoigu in which they decided to destroy the military contractor.
The Defense Ministry denied attacking the camps.
Congressional leaders were briefed on the Wagner buildup earlier last week, a person familiar with the matter said. The person was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity. The U.S. intelligence briefing was first reported by CNN.
A possible motivation for Prigozhin’s rebellion was the Russian Defense Ministry’s demand, which Putin backed, that private companies sign contracts with it by July 1. Prigozhin had refused to do it.
Ukrainians hoped the Russian infighting would create opportunities for their army to take back territory seized by Russian forces.
“These events will have been of great comfort to the Ukrainian government and the military,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Wagner troops have played a crucial role in the Ukraine war, capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut, an area where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place.
The Kremlin’s offer of amnesty to Prigozhin was negotiated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which might have raised his stature in his relationship with Putin.
The 62-year-old Prigozhin, a former convict, has longstanding ties to Putin and won lucrative Kremlin catering contracts that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.”
Wagner has sent military contractors to Libya, Syria and several African countries, as well as Ukraine.
Associated Press writers Danica Kirka in London, and Nomaan Merchant in Washington, contributed.
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