Exile of Russian mercenary leader ends revolt but casts doubt on Putin’s power

The biggest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades in power fizzled out after the rebel mercenary commander who ordered his troops to march on Moscow abruptly struck a deal with the Kremlin to go into exile and sound the withdrawal.

However, the brief revolt exposed vulnerabilities among Russian government forces, with soldiers from the Wagner Group under the command of Yevgeny Prigozhin capable of moving unhindered to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and moving hundreds of kilometers (miles) towards Moscow. The Russian army rushed to defend the capital of Russia.

Under the deal announced Saturday by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Prigozhin will go to neighboring Belarus, which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The charges against him of mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped.

The government also said it would not prosecute Wagner fighters who participated, while the Defense Ministry would offer contracts to those who did not join. Prigozhin ordered his troops to return to their camps in the Ukraine, where they have been fighting alongside regular Russian soldiers.

Putin had earlier vowed to punish those behind the armed uprising led by his erstwhile protégé. In a televised address to the nation, he called the rebellion “treason” and “treason.”

By allowing Prigozhin and his forces to go free, Peskov said, Putin’s “higher goal” was “to avoid bloodshed and internal confrontation with unpredictable results.”

The risk for Putin is whether he will be seen as weak, analysts said.

“Putin has been diminished forever by this affair,” former US ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said on CNN.

Moscow had prepared for the arrival of Wagner’s forces by erecting checkpoints with armored vehicles and troops on the southern edge of the city. Some 3,000 Chechen soldiers were withdrawn from the fighting in Ukraine and transferred there early Saturday morning, Chechen state television reported. Russian troops armed with machine guns set up checkpoints on the southern outskirts of Moscow. Crews dug up sections of road to slow the march.

Wagner’s troops advanced to only 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Moscow, according to Prigozhin. But after the deal was done, Prigozhin announced that he had decided to retire to avoid “shedding Russian blood.”

Prigozhin had demanded the dismissal of Defense Minister Sergei Shoiguwhom Prigohzhin has long criticized in withering terms for his conduct of the 16 month war in Ukraine. On Friday, he accused forces under Shoigu’s command of attacking Wagner’s camps and killing “a large number of our comrades.”

If Putin were to agree to Shoigu’s removal, it could be politically damaging to the president after he branded Prigozhin a traitorous traitor.

The United States had intelligence that Prigozhin had been amassing his forces near the Russian border 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.

Announcing the rebellion, Prigozhin accused Russian forces of attacking Wagner’s camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery. He alleged that General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, ordered the attacks after 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 early last week, a person familiar with the matter said. The person was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The US intelligence report was first reported by CNN.

One possible motivation for Prigozhin’s rebellion was the Russian Defense Ministry’s demand, which Putin backed, that private companies sign contracts by July 1. Prigozhin had refused to do so.

“It may well be that he struck now because he saw the deadline as a danger to his troop control,” Herbst wrote in an article for the Atlantic Council.

Early Saturday, Prigozhin’s private army appeared to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city more than 1,000 kilometers (660 miles) south of Moscow, which runs Russian operations in Ukraine, the Ministry of Defense said. british defense.

Russian media reported that Wagner’s troops shot down several helicopters and a military communications plane. The Russian Defense Ministry has not commented.

After the deal eased tensions, a video from Rostov-on-Don posted on Russian messaging app channels showed people cheering Wagner’s troops as they departed. Prigozhin was riding in an SUV followed by a large truck, people greeted him and some ran to shake his hand. The regional governor later said that all the troops had left the city.

Wagner’s troops and equipment were also in the Lipetsk province, about 360 kilometers (225 mi) south of Moscow.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin declared Monday a non-working day for most residents as part of heightened security measures, a move that remained in effect even after the withdrawal.

The Ukrainians hoped that Russian infighting would create opportunities for their army to recapture territory seized by Russian forces.

“These events will have been a great comfort to the Ukrainian government and military,” said Ben Barry, a senior fellow for ground warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He said that even with a deal, Putin’s position would probably have been weakened.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Saturday night, shortly before Prigozhin announced his withdrawal, that the march exposed the weakness of the Kremlin and “showed all Russian bandits, mercenaries and oligarchs” that it is easy to capture cities. Russian “and, probably, arsenals.”

Wagner’s troops have played a crucial role in the Ukrainian war, capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut, an area where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place. But Prigozhin has increasingly criticized top military commanders, accusing them of incompetence and depriving their troops of ammunition.

Prigozhin, a 62-year-old ex-convict, has long-standing ties to Putin and won lucrative catering contracts in the Kremlin that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.”

He and a dozen other Russian citizens were charged in the United States with operating a covert social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord ahead of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. Wagner has sent military contractors to Libya, Syria, several African countries and eventually the Ukraine.

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Associated Press writers Danica Kirka in London and Nomaan Merchant in Washington contributed.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine-war

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