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Wagner halts revolt but Putin seen as weakened; Moscow maintains security measures


By AFP and published by CNA

Moscow – Wagner mercenaries headed back to their base on Sunday (June 25) after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin agreed to allow their leader to avoid treason charges and accept exile in neighbouring Belarus.

The agreement ended an extraordinary crisis – the threat that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private army would storm Moscow – but analysts said Wagner’s revolt had exposed Putin’s rule as more fragile than previously thought.

Security measures were still in place in Moscow on Sunday, though fewer police were visible, and passers-by said they were unconcerned, despite Prigozhin’s exact whereabouts remaining unclear.

“Of course, I was shaken at the beginning,” Ludmila Shmeleva, 70, told AFP while walking at Moscow’s Red Square. “I was not expecting this.

“We are fighting, and there is also an internal enemy who is stabbing you in the back, as President Putin said,” she said. “But we are walking around, relaxing, we don’t feel any danger.”

Prigozhin was last seen late on Saturday in an SUV leaving Rostov-on-Don, where his fighters had seized a military headquarters, to the cheers of some local people. Some shook his hand through the car window.

Trucks carrying armoured vehicles with fighters on them followed his car.

There were reports that Wagner fighters had come as close as 400 km from Moscow, while Prigozhin himself claimed that “in 24 hours we got 200 km from Moscow”.

The mutiny was the culmination of his long-standing feud with the Russian military’s top brass over the conduct of the Russian operation in Ukraine.

Putin had on Saturday denounced the revolt as treason, vowing to punish the perpetrators. He accused them of pushing Russia to the brink of civil war.

Later the same day however, he had accepted an agreement brokered by Belarus to avert Moscow’s most serious security crisis in decades.

“Window of opportunity”?

Within hours of Prigozhin’s announcement that his forces would return to base to avoid “spilling Russian blood”, the Kremlin said Putin’s former ally would leave for Belarus.

Russia would drop the “armed rebellion” charges against Prigozhin and not prosecute Wagner troops, it added.

Ukraine revelled in the chaos, stepping up its own counter-offensive against Russian forces in the country and mocking Putin’s apparent humiliation.

Analysts also said the deal had exposed weakness in the Russian president’s grip on power.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said he had negotiated the truce with Prigozhin. Moscow thanked him, but observers noted that an intervention by Lukashenko, usually seen as Putin’s junior partner, was itself an embarrassment.

Asked if Prigozhin had been given a guarantee that he would be able to leave Belarus, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told domestic media: “It is the word of the president of Russia.”

In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s senior aide Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted: “Prigozhin humiliated Putin/the state and showed that there is no longer a monopoly on violence.”

Russia insisted the rebellion had no impact on its faltering Ukraine campaign and said on Sunday that it had repelled new offensive attacks by Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian soldiers leaving the front line on Sunday said the revolt had not noticeably affected fighting around the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

Kyiv, however, said the unrest offered a “window of opportunity” for its long-awaited counter-offensive.

Ukraine also said on Sunday that the death toll on this weekend’s strike on Kyiv had risen to five, after two more bodies were recovered from rubble.

“Shows the divisions”

Wagner’s fighters, made up of volunteers and ex-security officers but also thousands of convicts, were often thrown into the front of Russia’s advance in Ukraine.

The outfit also conducts several operations in the Middle East and Africa, largely seen as having Moscow’s blessing.

“The crisis of institutions and trust was not obvious to many in Russia and the West yesterday. Today, it is clear,” independent political analyst Konstantin Kalachev told AFP.

“Putin’s position is weakened,” he said. “Putin underestimated Prigozhin, just as he underestimated Zelenskyy before that. He could have stopped this with a phone call to Prigozhin but he did not.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that Wagner’s short-lived uprising marked “a direct challenge to Putin’s authority” and “shows real cracks” in Russian state authority.

French President Emmanuel Macron also said the march on Moscow “shows the divisions that exist within the Russian camp, and the fragility of both its military and its auxiliary forces”.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani told the daily Il Messaggero: “The myth of the unity of Putin’s Russia is over. This internal escalation divides the Russian military alliance.

“It’s the inevitable outcome when you support and finance a legion of mercenaries,” he said.

Foreign Minister Qin Gang of China, which has maintained close ties with Putin since the Ukraine operation was launched, met Russia’s deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko in Beijing on Sunday.

Afterwards the Chinese foreign ministry called the mercenary revolt an “internal affair” for Russia while expressing support for Putin’s government.


Top: Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya) officers patrol an area around the Kremlin in Moscow, on June 24, 2023. Photo: AFP and published by CNA

First insert: This video grab taken from a handout footage posted on May 25, 2023 on the Telegram account of the press service of Concord – a company linked to the chief of Russian mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin – shows Yevgeny Prigozhin speaking in Bakhmut. Image: AFP/Telegram and published by CNA

Second insert: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a video address on the occasion of Youth Day in Moscow, Russia, in this picture released on June 24, 2023. Photo: Sputnik/Gavriil Grigorov/Kremlin via Reuters and published by CNA

Third insert: A police officer guards the closed Red Square in Moscow, Russia, June 24, 2023. Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov and published by CNA

Front Page: A serviceman stands atop an armoured vehicle of the Wagner Group military company, as he guards an area at the HQ of the Southern Military District in a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023. Photo: AP and published by CNA

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