Wagner Stops March on Moscow as Belarus Brokers Deal

From a Wall Street Journal story by Yaroslav Trofimov and Alan Cullison headlined “Wagner Stops March on Moscow as Belarus Brokers Deal”:

The Wagner paramilitary group halted its march on Moscow on Saturday, after Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko brokered a deal between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the rebels, averting an armed confrontation that threatened to plunge the country into civil war.

Criminal charges against Wagner’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, will be dropped and he will relocate to Belarus, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Wagner soldiers who took part in the mutiny will be granted amnesty, while those who stayed in their barracks will be offered a contract with the defense ministry, he added.

Security forces in Moscow were seen dismantling barricades that had been hastily assembled as rebel troops neared the capital. Wagner’s forces began packing up in the southern city of Rostov, which they seized early on Saturday morning.

Lukashenko said he spent most of Saturday negotiating with Prigozhin and Putin, adding that all sides had agreed “that unleashing a bloodbath on the territory of Russia was unacceptable.” The deal offered to Prigozhin is “absolutely advantageous and acceptable,” and will involve security guarantees for Wagner, he added.

There were no further details, particularly about the fate of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of Russia’s general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, whose removal Prigozhin had demanded as he seized Rostov and sent his troops marching toward the capital. Peskov said the issue hasn’t been discussed with Lukashenko. Prigozhin himself didn’t make any statements about leaving Russia.

The tentative truce was the latest twist in a tumultuous day that raised serious questions about Putin’s hold on power and underscored growing tensions within the Russian establishment and armed forces.

It was less clear what the day’s fast-moving events meant for Prigozhin. The march on Moscow initially highlighted his formidable clout as leader of a motivated and well-armed paramilitary force, contrasting sharply with a Russian military largely demoralized after 16 months of fighting in Ukraine. But the end result raised questions about whether Prigozhin had miscalculated and whether he would be able to retain any power while in Belarus.

“Understanding all the responsibility that Russian blood may be spilled by one of the sides, we have turned around our columns and are returning to the field camps, according to plan,” Prigozhin said.

For Putin, who on Saturday morning accused Prigozhin of treason and ordered his military to crush Wagner’s “mutiny,” the deal brokered by Lukashenko represented a climbdown. It was caused, in part, by the fact that Russia’s security forces by and large didn’t resist as Wagner’s columns swiftly moved toward Moscow, coming to within 125 miles of the capital.

The crisis represented the most serious challenge to Putin’s 23-year rule—a direct consequence of the strains put on Russian society and armed forces by the war that he unleashed against Ukraine in February last year.

The specter of all-out war between rival Russian forces had grown during the day as columns of Wagner tanks, artillery and personnel carriers were spotted crossing the Voronezh and Lipetsk regions, coming closer and closer to Moscow. There were no major attempts to stop them on the M4 highway by Russian ground forces, though the column was occasionally attacked by Russian combat aircraft.

Video footage showed the main Voronezh fuel depot ablaze after an airstrike, the wreckage of several helicopters, and one warplane being shot out of the sky. Fighterbomber, a Russian military aviation Telegram channel that is well connected with the Russian Air Force, said Wagner on Saturday downed six Russian helicopters, including a Ka-52 gunship, and an IL-18 or IL-22 airborne command center plane. A total of 12 Air Force crew died, according to Fighterbomber.

President Biden spoke about the situation in Russia with President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and affirmed their unwavering support for Ukraine, the White House said.

In the minutes after the deal was announced, U.S. officials said their assessment was that events Saturday would likely pull Putin’s attention away from Ukraine, which could give Kyiv an advantage in the days ahead. “We can say a lot more tomorrow,” one official said.

Based on recently developed intelligence, U.S. officials had determined that Prigozhin and the Wagner Group could soon attempt to move against the Russian military due to growing frustrations, but weren’t certain when or what form such a turn would take, according to people familiar with the matter. Congressional leaders in the House and Senate were briefed this week on the possibility, one of the people said.

Until Saturday, Prigozhin had focused his diatribes on Russia’s military leadership, avoiding direct attacks on Putin. But, responding to the Russian president, he said Wagner’s men weren’t traitors but the real patriots of Russia.

Putin, Prigozhin added, is “profoundly mistaken.”

“Whatever happens now, what we’re seeing is historic and it will have serious consequences for Putin,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Putin who is now a regime critic living outside Russia.

In a televised speech Saturday morning, Putin—while not naming Prigozhin by name—described his moves as a “criminal adventure, a grave crime, an armed mutiny.” Wagner’s power grab, he added, is reminiscent of the 1917 revolution that destroyed the Russian Empire, “when the country was waging World War I but its victory was stolen,” leading to the loss of huge territories.

“We will not let this be repeated. We will defend our people and our state against all the threats, including internal treason. And what we are facing is precisely treason,” Putin said. “Any internal strife will be a mortal threat for our statehood, for us as a nation. Our actions to defend the motherland against this danger will be harsh.”

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who oversees a significant personal military force, on Saturday condemned Prigozhin’s rebellion as a “stab in the back” that undermines Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Kadyrov and Prigozhin had a public falling out earlier this month, after Wagner’s owner said the Chechen forces were of little use in the battlefield.

While Chechen forces were filmed on the road to Rostov, supposedly acting on orders to retake the city, they took no action against Wagner.

Videos posted online by local reporters and bystanders showed Wagner tanks and fighting vehicles easily bypassing barricades of buses and streaming into Rostov early Saturday morning. Wagner fighters wearing white armbands surrounded the cream-colored headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District.

Prigozhin, in body armor, appeared in a video as he entered the headquarters, berating Russia’s deputy minister of defense, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, and the deputy head of the Russian military intelligence, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Alekseyev.

Alekseyev, who on Friday night made an appeal for Wagner to stop so that Russia would avoid civil war, quipped that Prigozhin was welcome to take Shoigu and Gerasimov away.

“What saddens me the most is that they will celebrate with champagne for three days in Kyiv,” Alekseyev said.

“Nothing terrible about that,” Prigozhin replied, saying that there were weeklong celebrations in Kyiv when Russian forces abandoned the Ukrainian cities of Lyman and Izyum last fall. Unlike the regular army, Wagner has never surrendered positions, he added: “We came here so that the shame in which our country finds itself ends.”

Ann M. Simmons, Georgi Kantchev, Benoit Faucon and Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.

Yaroslav Trofimov is a Ukrainian-born Italian author and journalist who serves as chief foreign-affairs correspondent at The Wall Street Journal.

Alan Cullison has been a reporter for The Wall Street Journal Europe in Moscow since February 1999.

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