The Wagner group chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, will move to Belarus under a deal to end the armed mutiny he led against Russia’s military leadership, the Kremlin said on Saturday night.
The deal was brokered by the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Lukashenko had offered to mediate, with Vladimir Putin’s agreement, because he had known Prigozhin personally for about 20 years.
Peskov said the criminal case that had been opened against Prigozhin for armed mutiny would be dropped, and that the Wagner fighters who had taken part in his “march for justice” would not face any action, in recognition of their previous service to Russia.
Although Putin had earlier vowed to punish those who participated in the mutiny, Peskov said the agreement had had the “higher goal” of avoiding confrontation and bloodshed.
Prigozhin and all of his fighters vacated the military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don that they had previously taken over, the RIA news agency reported.
If you’re just joining us, here’s a roundup of the key developments:
In an abrupt about-face, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said he had called off his troops’ march on Moscow and ordered them to move out of Rostov. Under a deal brokered by Belarus, Prigozhin agreed to leave Russia and move to Belarus. He will not face charges and Wagner troops who took part in the rebellion will not face any action in recognition of their previous service to Russia.
In a statement, Prigozhin said that he wanted to avoid the spilling of “Russian blood”. “Now the moment has come when blood can be shed,” he said. “Therefore, realising all the responsibility for the fact that Russian blood will be shed from one side, we will turn our convoys around and go in the opposite direction to our field camps.”
The Wagner leader was later pictured leaving the headquarters of the southern military district (SMD) in Rostov, which his forces had occupied on Saturday. Wagner forces also shot down three military helicopters and had entered the Lipetsk region, about 360km (225 miles) south of Moscow, before they were called back.
Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko’s press office was the first to announce that Prigozhin would be backing down, saying that Lukashenko had negotiated a de-escalation with the Wagner head after talking to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko said that Putin has since thanked him for his negotiation efforts.
Putin has not publicly commented on Lukashenko’s deal with Prigozhin. He appeared on television earlier on Saturday in an emergency broadcast, issuing a nationwide call for unity in the face of a mutinous strike that he compared to the revolution of 1917. “Any internal mutiny is a deadly threat to our state, to us as a nation,” he said.
Putin reportedly took a plane out of Moscow heading north-west on Saturday afternoon. It is unclear where he went or his current whereabouts.
Before the Belarus deal was announced, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that: “Everyone who chooses the path of evil destroys himself. Whoever throws hundreds of thousands into the war, eventually must barricade himself in the Moscow region from those whom he himself armed.”
Ukraine’s military said on Saturday its forces made advances near Bakhmut, on the eastern front, and further south. Deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar said an offensive was launched near a group of villages ringing Bakhmut, which was taken by Wagner forces in May after months of fighting. Oleksandr Tarnavskiy, commander of the southern front, said Ukrainian forces had liberated an area near Krasnohorivka, west of the Russian-held regional centre of Donetsk.
Samuel Bendett, a Russia expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, has also posted some analysis about the day’s events, in which he argues that there have to be some consequences for Prigozhin and Wagner.
“Otherwise the message is that a military force can openly challenge the state, and others have to learn that the Russian state indeed has a monopoly on violence inside the country,” he writes.
“There has to be ‘some’ accountability for the military personnel who were involved and others who made no active showing of stopping Wagner, or avoided challenging Prigozhin’s force altogether. Again, Prigozhin’s actions were a challenge to the state and those who did not prevent Wagner’s march contributed to Prigozhin’s ‘success.’”
He also notes that the Kremlin will remember who spoke out against Prigozhin and who was notable by their absence.
“Those politicians who said nothing about the crisis, were too meek in their critique of Prigozhin were noted by the Kremlin,” he wrote.
“The MOD was Prigozhin’s ultimate target, and [defence minister Sergei] Shoigu with [chief of the general staff Valery] Gerasimov were nowhere to be seen. There will have to be some explanation for their public absence. Generals Surovikin and Alekseev probably earned at least some ‘bonus points’ for their public appeals to Wagner.”
And a final thought: “Unclear yet what to make of it all right now. Wagner and Prigozhin emerging unscathed is probably a big shock for the MOD, the military and the security services.”
And from our correspondent Andrew Roth, who wrote about reactions to Wagner in Rostov for the Observer:
A thought from our correspondent Pjotr Sauer, who has been covering Russia and the war in Ukraine.
Rob Lee, a military expert at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, has posted some analysis of the last 24 hours, which have given many of us whiplash. He starts by saying he has “more questions than answers”.
Regarding the Russian president, he says its “too soon to say Putin will fall anytime soon” but notes that “Putin and the MoD’s leadership look weak”.
It’s “not clear this will affect Ukraine’s offensive” but “the previous Kremlin-Wagner relationship is over” and “Wagner-Russian military cooperation will likely suffer”.
He also says Prigozhin “likely alienated many pro-war figures for doing this while Russian soldiers are defending against an offensive and killing Russian airmen” and notes that there is “a difference between soldiers and police not shooting at Wagner and joining them”.
Given Wagner’s presence overseas, “the greatest effects from this event may be felt in MENA/Africa”, says Lee.
Wagner group fighters have left the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and are headed back to their field camps, the regional governor, Vasily Golubev, has confirmed.
The confirmation comes after Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was pictured leaving the city, where his troops had captured the headquarters of the military’s Southern District Command on Saturday.
Under the terms of the deal brokered by Belarus to end his rebellion, he is now expected to leave Russia and go to Belarus.
I’m Helen Livingstone, taking over the blog from my colleague Hayden Vernon.
Former US intelligence officials have said that Wagner’s march on Moscow has revived fears about what would happen to Russia’s nuclear stockpile in the event of domestic upheaval, Reuters reports.
Despite an agreement on Saturday by Wagner’s boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to call off the insurrection, the episode signalled that President Putin’s grasp on power could be waning.
Images of tanks on Russian streets brought to mind the failed 1991 coup by communist hardliners that raised concerns about the security of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.
“The IC [intelligence community] will be super-focused on the [Russian] nuclear stockpile,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer who oversaw the agency’s clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia.
“You want to know who has control of the nuclear weapons because you’re worried that terrorists or bad guys like [Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadyrov might come after them for the leverage they can get,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former senior CIA officer who served as the agency’s Moscow station chief.
US officials said they did not see an immediate threat to the security of Russia’s strategic and tactical weapons.
“We have not seen any changes in the disposition of Russian nuclear forces,” said a National Security Council spokesperson in response to questions from Reuters. “Russia has a special responsibility to maintain command, control and custody of its nuclear forces and to ensure that no actions are taken that imperil strategic stability.”
All restrictions previously imposed on highways in Russia have been lifted, the country’s Tass news agency said.
The authorities of the regions bordering Moscow had been taking increasingly serious steps to slow down the Wagner column that was approaching the Russian capital before a deal between the mercenary group and the Kremlin was struck.
One video, which the BBC said it had verified, showed diggers destroying the road to Moscow in the Lipetsk region.
UK fighter jets have been scrambled to respond to Russian aircraft 21 times in the last three weeks under Nato’s air policing operations in the Baltic region, AFP reports.
The RAF Typhoons, currently operating out of Estonia, are part of so-called “quick reaction alert” aircraft used by the western alliance to secure its eastern European flank.
The UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said the intercepts were “a stark reminder of the value of collective defence and deterrence provided by Nato”.
The fighters, which have been operating out of an Estonian air base since March, were launched to monitor the Russian aircraft when they failed to respond to air traffic agencies, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said in a statement.
Footage on social media claims to show Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaving the military headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don that his troops had previously captured. A group of onlookers applauded and approached the car to shake hands with the mercenary chief.
Rostov-on-Don is an important tactical location for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. It is the largest city in southern Russia and the capital of the Rostov region that adjoins parts of eastern Ukraine where the war is raging. The city is just 60 miles (100km) from the border and is home to the Russian southern military district command – the headquarters Wagner took over – whose 58th Combined Arms Army is fighting against Kyiv’s counteroffensive.