Humiliated Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is starting a life in exile in Belarus this morning after he sensationally abandoned his group’s march on Moscow at the 11th hour just 120 miles from the capital.
The mercenaries aborted their dramatic ‘armed mutiny’ against the Kremlin following crisis talks between Prigozhin and Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
Charges of rebellion have now been dropped against Prigozhin, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also announcing that no Wagner mercenary will be prosecuted for the insurrection, which saw the group take the city of Rostov and march on the Russian capital in a whirlwind 24-hour advance.
The extraordinary episode has weakened Vladimir Putin’s position, according to experts, and all eyes will now be on the Russian supremo to see what he does next.
There has been no sign of Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu since the mutiny started, leading to rumours he has been sacked by Putin.
If these reports are accurate, then the move would be seen as appeasing Prigozhin, who made Shoigu’s removal a key aim of his rebellion and has heavily criticised the politician in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has moved to seize control of the Wagner force, with those who participated in Prigozhin’s action retreating from Rostov – where they were treated like heroes by the public as they withdrew.
Members of the mercenary group who did not take part in the action will now sign contracts with the Ministry of Defence.
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group’s pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don
People gathered to bid farewell to Prigozhin, with one man even reaching through his car window to shake the exiled Wagner leader’s hand
One fan of the Wagner chief even managed to snap a selfie with him, as the disgraced mercenary leader was forced out of Russia
PMC Wagner Group servicemen seen pulling out of downtown Rostov-on-Don and returning to their bases
Onlookers clapped and cheered ‘Wagner’ as the troops were told to depart from Rostov by their leaders
Tanks were hauled out of the southern city of Rostov as Prigozhin’s forces retreated from Rostov
Crowds lined the streets and cheered as the private military company withdrew its troops from Rostov
Huge crowds gathered in Rostov-on-Don as Wagner-owned tanks rolled out of the city
People gather to bid farewell to fighters of the Wagner private mercenary group as they pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District and return to their bases
Onlookers said Wagner troops were being cheered out of Rostov-on-Don after their chief agreed to withdraw
A deal was struck with Wagner, ‘avoiding bloodshed, internal confrontation, and clashes with unpredictable results was the highest goal,’ Peskov said.
‘We are turning our columns around and going back to field camps,’ an audio message on Prigozhin’s Telegram feed added.
Prigozhin announced that while his men were just 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Moscow, he decided to turn them back to avoid ‘shedding Russian blood.’
Belarusian President Lukashenko said that he had negotiated a deal with Prigozhin, but it is still not clear what was offered to the Wagner boss to convince him to stand his men down.
Video appeared to show him making a dramatic exit from Rostov by car, with crowds gathering to bid him farewell, with some reportedly heard cheering for the ousted military leader and others shaking his hand.
Wagner forces – many of whom are still said to be disgruntled about Prigozhin’s retreat – were later seen leaving the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, where they had earlier captured military headquarters and civilian buildings.
Clearly relishing the internal chaos in the Russian Federation, Ukraine claimed that the Wagner chief had humiliated President Vladimir Putin with his aborted rebellion.
‘Prigozhin humiliated Putin/the state and showed that there is no longer a monopoly on violence,’ Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, said on Twitter.
The Ukrainian president said the attempted coup made Russia look ‘weak’ and proves that Putin will ‘destroy himself’.
‘Today, the world saw that the bosses of Russia do not control anything. Nothing at all. Complete chaos. Complete absence of any predictability.’
‘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.
‘And the longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain, and problems it will have for itself later.
‘Everyone who chooses the path of evil destroys himself.’
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin confirmed he has ordered his mercenaries to halt their march on Moscow to avoid shedding Russian blood
A Russian Police officer guards the Red Square near the Kremlin as forces brace for an attack before the sensational retreat of Prigozhin’s forces
A Russian soldier mans a machine gun post in the south of Moscow earlier, ahead of the expected arrival of Prigozhin and the Wagner troops. But Prigozhin has confirmed he has ordered his mercenaries to halt their march
Belarus President and key Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko (pictured) said Yevgeny Prigozhin has accepted his proposal to stop the Wagner Group’s advance toward Moscow
Machine gun outposts are hastily constructed on the outskirts of Moscow prior to Prigozhin’s shock statement
‘We left on June 23 for the march of justice,’ Prigozhin added in his audio messaged.
‘In a day we travelled, not reaching 200 km, to Moscow.
‘During this time, we have not shed a single drop of the blood of our fighters.
‘Now the moment has come when blood could be shed, therefore, realising all the responsibility for the fact that Russian blood will be shed on one of the sides, we turn our columns around and return in the opposite direction to the field camps, according to the plan.’
Residents Several authorities across Russia said they were lifting restrictions on residents following the news of the mercenaries backing down.
An uneasy calm prevailed on the streets of Moscow after officials had earlier scrambled to prepare for war.
The capital had braced for the arrival of forces from the Wagner Group, a private army led by Prigozhin that has been fighting alongside regular Russian troops in Ukraine, by erecting checkpoints with armored vehicles and troops on the city’s southern edge. Red Square was shut down, and the mayor urged motorists to stay off some roads.
Putin had earlier vowed harsh consequences for organizers of the armed uprising led by his onetime protege, who brought his forces out of Ukraine, seized a key military facility in southern Russia and advanced toward Moscow.
In a televised speech to the nation earlier, Putin called the rebellion a ‘betrayal’ and ‘treason.’
‘All those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment,’ Putin said. ‘The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders.’
Prigozhin, 62, made his money providing catering services and eared himself the nickname ‘Putin’s chef’
Putin earlier described the group’s actions as a ‘criminal adventuristic campaign’ that is ‘equivalent to armed mutiny’
In the shock announcement Prigozhin did not say whether the Kremlin has responded to his demand to oust Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (right), pictured with top Russian military commander in Ukraine,Gen. Sergei Surovikin (left)
Some observers speculated that Prigozhin could make concessions such as putting the Wagner Group under federal authority, or he could shift the force’s activities back to Africa, where his mercenaries have been active in recent years.
Early Saturday, Prigozhin’s private army appeared to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city 660 miles (over 1,000 kilometers) south of Moscow that runs Russian operations in Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.
Wagner troops and equipment also were in Lipetsk province, about 360 kilometers (225 miles) south of Moscow, where authorities were ‘taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the population,’ said regional Gov. Igor Artamonov, via Telegram.
Authorities declared a ‘counterterrorist regime’ in Moscow and its surrounding region, enhancing security and restricting some movement. On the southern outskirts, troops erected checkpoints, arranged sandbags and set up machine guns. Crews dug up sections of highways to slow the march.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, had earlier declared that a ‘counter-terrorism regime’ was in force, before the leader of the Wagner private militia announced that his fighters would turn back to avoid bloodshed.
A local resident walks past members of Wagner group in Rostov-on-Don earlier today
Russian police stand at a checkpoint on a road entering on Moscow earlier today
A member of Wagner group stands guard in Rostov-on-Don with a machine gun today
Yevgeny Prigozhin had said he wanted to oust the army’s top brass and ‘restore justice’, while Putin had promised to crush the mutiny.
One Moscow resident who gave his name as Nikolai – declining like others to give his surname – watched the military take up positions to protect the city.
‘It’s frightening of course – you sit at home thinking about what might happen,’ he told Reuters. ‘It’s disturbing, both for you and your loved ones.’
Some residents were finding it hard to grasp the scale of events.
‘… It’s really tough news, really unexpected. I’ve just come back from university. I’ve just done my last exam – and the news was really unexpected as I was prepping (for the exam) last night,’ said Vladimir, a student. ‘I don’t really know how to react. I haven’t really got my head around it yet.’
A woman called Galina said she thought what was happening was some kind of ‘provocation’.
‘It doesn’t frighten me at all,’ she said. ‘I have confidence in our president and our people.’
One man who declined to be named at all said he thought it was just politics playing out.
‘They might cancel a few events, and I make my living from events. I have an event going on now, so I could lose out because of this,’ he said.
‘But otherwise, it’s their business, it’s politics – let them get on with it.’
A fighter of Wagner private mercenary group flashes a victory sign in a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don
A group of Wagner fighters pictured on Rostov-on-Don street on Saturday morning
A Wagner fighter on guard duty close to the Southern Military District HQ
The United States said this evening that it intends to postpone the imposition of new sanctions against Wagner against the backdrop of the situation in Russia.
Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man nicknamed ‘Putin’s chef’ who is behind the Wagner Group ?
Nicknamed ‘Putin’s chef’ due to owning a number of restaurants and catering firms that supply the Kremlin, Yevgeny Prigozhin is the oligarch founder of the notorious Wagner Group.
Prigozhin was born in the Soviet Union on June 1 1961, before spending a period of time in jail for numerous crimes including fraud and robbery, during his teens.
After spending 9 years in prison, Prigozhin launched a number of businesses following the collapse of the Soviet Union, including grocery and gambling firms.
In 2014, Prigozhin founded Wagner Group during Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine. The mercenary group has since become notorious for doing the Russian military’s dirty work, leaving behind trails of brutal violence, rape and war crimes.
Prigozhin long denied any affiliation with the group until September 2022, when he admitted to founding the mercenary force.
He is often seen on the frontlines of the conflict with Ukraine, criticising Russian military leadership and accusing them of starving Wagner troops of supplies.
The US administration fears that by imposing new sanctions against Wagner, it may ‘take the side’ of the Russian leadership, the Wall Street Journal reported. ‘Washington doesn’t want to look like it’s on one side or the other in this [situation],’ the source quoted the WSJ as saying.
According to the newspaper, the US State Department planned on June 27 to impose new sanctions against PMC Wagner because of its activities in Africa.
The surprise reported development comes after a day of complete chaos in Moscow as the city was preparing for war by battening down the hatches as soldiers built outposts and military vehicles flooded the streets.
A total of 5,000 Wagner forces were reportedly advancing toward the capital before the U-turn, and were set to reach as far as Lipetsk this evening.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is said to have a total of 25,000 men at his disposal and a further 5,000 of them were in Rostov-on-Don, the southern city key to Russia’s war in Ukraine that Prigozhin said he had taken control of.
As the convoy earlier inched towards Moscow it was said to be led by senior Wagner commander and neo-Nazi Dmitry Utkin. A source said Wagner’s plan for Moscow was to take up positions in a densely built-up area prior to its retreat.
A number of restrictions were introduced around the Russian capital following a decree from the governor amid the threat as people were told to refrain from travelling round Moscow.
It comes after Prigozhin initiated a military coup against the Kremlin leaders overnight, which saw the group take key cities and threaten the President, who called them ‘traitors’.
Putin earlier addressed the Russian people amid the Wagner group’s threat, warning that Prigozhin had ‘stabbed him in the back’. Moscow subsequently entered into a lockdown, with troops digging in in preparation to defend the city.
A spokesperson for the Russian president said Putin was still at work in the Kremlin and had not fled Moscow amid the earlier threat. However, two presidential jets were seen flying from Moscow in the direction of St Petersburg this afternoon. They were reported to have switched off its transponder to prevent tracking the route.
Armored vehicles are seen as security measures are taken in Moscow
Russian police man a checkpoint on a road leading to Moscow on Saturday
Trucks are lined up, thought to be for defensive purposes, on the outside of Moscow as Russian troops begin building road blocks
Russia’s National Anti-terrorism Committee announced on Saturday that a counter-terrorist operation regime has been introduced in Moscow city (pictured), the Moscow region and the Voronezh region
Heavy, reinforced vehicles are being deployed at checkpoints across Moscow
Police search vehicles at a checkpoint in the outskirts of Moscow
There is a heavy armed police presence on roads across the capital city
The shock announcement from Prigozhin comes after his feared 25,000-strong Wagner militia took control of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don Saturday, saying they are ‘ready to die’ for their ‘march of justice’, and have been heading north in a hundreds-strong convoy of armoured vehicles.
The unit earlier passed through the halfway city of Voronezh and are soon approaching Lipetsk on their way to Moscow, seeing negligible resistance on their way.
Before Prigozhin’s announcement, a message posted on the Wagner Telegram channel on Saturday said: ‘Putin made the wrong choice. All the worse for him. Soon we will have a new president.’
Footage on social media earlier showed large convoys of troops heading north from Voronezh, thought to be Wagner mercenaries. They were also said to be on their way to other key cities including Krasnodar and Volgograd.
Russia responded by increasing security in Moscow, mobilising troops who are set to defend against the incursion, and calling for the military to rally around President Putin.
All public events had been cancelled and Monday had already been declared a non-working day, as Putin called close ally Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko to brief him on the situation.
Moscow’s mayor had earlier urged people not to take trips across the city, saying the situation is ‘difficult’ and ‘city services are on high alert’.
Sergey Sobyanin also told residents not to go to work on Monday in order to ‘minimise risks’. It came as part of the announcement of a ‘counter-terrorist operation’ in the city.
A line of armoured vehicles are seen as Russian forces prepare to launch a defense of the capital
A traffic police officer checks a car next to an armoured personnel carrier (APC)
Russian troops were seen establishing positions at a bridge across the Oka River
Prigozhin c laimed to have also shot down a Russian military helicopter in the city – home to the Kremlin’s headquarters for the war in Ukraine
Armored cars blockade a street in the city of Rostov as the sun began to rise on Saturday
Russia’s defense military in Moscow is pictured as dawn breaks on Saturday. Anti-aircraft artillery are pictured on the roof
Armored vehicles were seen on the streets of Moscow on Friday night outside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior amid fears of a coup
An armored personnel carrier (APC) is seen on a street of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don on Friday night
Armored vehicles trawl through the street of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don amid coup fears in Russia on Friday
Pro-Putin forces on the outskirts of the city were meanwhile seen digging in against the now disbanded Wagner coup heading towards the capital.
Russian troops were pictured establishing positions at a bridge across the Oka River. They deployed barrage equipment, machine guns and grenade launchers, as military helicopters flew across the city.
Other photos showed soldiers setting up barricades and machine gun nests a little way out of the city, as Putin signed into law a measure which allows people to be detained for up to 30 days in areas where marshal is imposed – not that this has yet happened.
Russian officials had earlier ordered roads to be blocked by large, heavy trucks in the path of the convoy in an effort to slow it down.
Travel had also been restricted in regions closest to Moscow, most recently in the Kalugia area. Movement on the region’s roads will be restricted near bordering regions Tula, Bryansk, Oryol and Smolensk
Eyewitnesses also reported air strikes on the Wagner convoy heading north.
Shortly after this emerged, Prigozhin claimed it was hit by Russian strikes and fire from helicopters.
‘We were fired upon: first artillery strikes, and then from helicopters,’ Prigozhin said in a Telegram post. Video footage online purports to show an artillery strike on an armoured vehicle in the Wagner procession.
Prigozhin was once known as ‘Putin’s chef’ – now the Wagner boss appears to be waging war on the Kremlin
Police officers stand guard on roads approaching Moscow amid the ongoing military coup
Pro-Putin forces on the outskirts of Moscow were seen digging in against the Wagner coup army heading towards the capital
Russian policemen guard the Red Square in Moscow on Saturday morning
Russian servicemen stand guard on a street in downtown Moscow
Policemen guard the Kremlin, home to Russian President Putin, on Saturday
Russian forces are pictured in the Lipetsk region, just a few hours from the gates of Moscow near the town of Yelets
Pictures also showed the Wagner forces in the Lipetsk region – less than four hours to the outskirts of Moscow – before the surprise retreat.
The column of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s coup armed force is heading north for a showdown with troops still-loyal to dictator Vladimir Putin amid rumours he has absconded from the capital.
The Wagner forces were some 200 miles from Moscow – facing an evening or nighttime showdown with Russian regular forces.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed he had spoken to western allies about the armed rebellion led by the Wagner mercenary group in Russia, which UK defence officials have described as ‘the most significant challenge’ to the Kremlin in recent times.
Mr Sunak spoke to US president Joe Biden, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday afternoon ‘to discuss the situation in Russia and reiterate their continuing support for Ukrainian sovereignty’, Downing Street said.
A senior Kremlin official had warned that a successful rebellion by the Wagner group would mean the mercenaries getting hold of Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal and raise an existential threat to the entire world.
A military column of Wagner private mercenary group drives along M-4 highway, which links the capital Moscow with Russia’s southern cities
A truck transporting a military vehicle of Wagner private mercenary group drives along M-4 highway, which links the capital Moscow with Russia’s southern cities, near Voronezh
A still from video footage which purports to show a Russian attack on the Wagner’s armed convoy
There have been no reports of further attacks upon the convoy as they headed north
Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group walk around a vehicle during a stop on M-4 highway
An oil depot in Voronezh region was ‘blitzed by a pro-Putin strike helicopter’
‘The history of mankind hasn’t yet seen the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons under control by bandits,’ Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by President Vladimir Putin, said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies. ‘Such a crisis will not be limited by just one country’s borders, the world will be put on the brink of destruction.’
He added that ‘we won’t allow such a turn of events.’
Medvedev has frequently used hardline rhetoric since Russia sent troops into Ukraine, regularly reminding the West about Russia’s nuclear arsenal in a bid to discourage the U.S. and its allies from ramping up weapons supplies to Kyiv.
Medvedev described the rebellion as a ‘well-planned operation aimed at seizing power in the country.’ He claimed that some veterans of elite Russian military units and foreign actors could have been involved in it
Away from Russia, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom on Saturday as the mutinous mercenaries barrelled towards Moscow
‘The leaders discussed the situation in Russia. They also affirmed their unwavering support for Ukraine,’ a readout said.
The leaders ‘affirmed their unwavering support for Ukraine,’ the White House statement added.
A White House spokesman also said Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were briefed by their national security team Saturday morning on the Russian crisis and will continue to be briefed throughout the day.
Vladimir Putin (center) speaks with Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov (left) and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (right)
Military personnel and equipment in the center of Moscow and near the Russian MoD
Prigozhin said that the Russian Armed Forces launched a missile attack on PMC Wagner forces
An armoured personnel carrier (APC) is seen next to a shopping mall in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don on Friday night
It comes after pro-Putin forces earlier today raided the Wagner unit’s HQ in St Petersburg, after Prigozhin captured the Southern Defense Command in Rostov-on-Don, which plays a major role in the invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian Security Service said it had found $47 million in cash on the premises, which Prigozhin claimed is for salaries and other expenses for his men.
Putin described the group’s actions as ‘equivalent to armed mutiny’, and urged those involved to cease any armed resistance.
Multiple reports claimed Putin had left Moscow on Saturday afternoon, despite officials denying it and saying he was working in the Kremlin.
A presidential plane linked to Vladimir Putin flew north from Moscow towards Tver before switching off its transponder, live flight data showed.
Other business jets were seen making an exodus from the capital towards St Petersburg, with senior backers of Putin allegedly fleeing to Turkey.
Prigozhin, who was once a confidant of Vladimir Putin before declaring war on Moscow’s military leadership last night, said in a video that the highest ranking officer at the command post had fled as soon as he learned that Wagner forces were approaching.
A military vehicle appeared to be on the streets of Moscow on Friday evening as Prigozhin called on the Russian National Guard to join his side
A Russian security source said Wagner fighters had also taken control of military facilities in the city of Voronezh, about 500 km (310 miles) south of Moscow.
A huge oil depot was seen bursting into flames in the city, thought to be an attack on Wagner forces by the Russian military.
This is significant as it marks the halfway point between Rostov and Moscow.
The governor of Russia’s Voronezh region said on Saturday that the army was taking ‘necessary military measures’ in the region as part of a counter-terrorist operation declared after an armed mutiny by the Wagner mercenary group.
It is also being claimed that Wagner troops are on the outskirts of two other southern cities, Krasnodar and Volgograd – but this has not been verified.
The Lipetsk region is so far the closest location to Moscow where Wagner columns have been spotted.
‘Hardware of the Wagner mercenary group is moving across the territory of the Lipetsk region,’ Governor Igor Artamonov said on Telegram.
‘I remind you that residents are strongly recommended not to leave their houses or to make trips on any mode of transport.’
He did not say exactly where in the region the Wagner fighters were seen.
Prigozhin said he had 25,000 troops under his command and would punish Russian military boss Shoigu in an armed rebellion, urging the army not to offer resistance: ‘This is not a military coup, but a march of justice.’
Residents have been told to stay in their homes by government officials, but some were seen out observing what was happening, even live-streaming the action on their cell phones.