Russian government troops retreated from the streets of Moscow and people flocked to parks and cafes on Sunday following a brief uprising. Mercenaries have weakened President Vladimir Putin and raised questions about his ability to wage war in Ukraine.
The midnight truce that eventually halted the advance of Wagnerian troops led by Yevgeny Prigozhin on the capital severely damaged Putin’s reputation as a leader willing to ruthlessly punish anyone who challenged his authority. That could open the door to others unhappy with Putin’s two-decade grip on power, particularly after his ill-fated invasion of Ukraine..
According to the terms of the agreement, Prigozhin will be exiled to Belarus But will not face the case and neither will his forces. Putin or Prigozhin have not been heard from since the deal was announced Saturday night, brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken described the weekend’s events as “extraordinary”, adding that 16 months ago Putin appeared poised to seize Ukraine’s capital and now he had to defend Moscow from forces led by his one-time protégé.
“I think we’ve seen more cracks appear in the Russian facade,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“It’s too early to say exactly where they’re going and when they’re going there, but we have all kinds of new questions for Putin to address in the coming weeks and months.”
It is not yet clear what the rifts opened by the 24-hour uprising will mean for the war. But as a result some of the best forces fighting for Russia in the Ukraine were taken off the battlefield: Prigozhin’s own Wagner troops and Chechen soldiers were sent to intercept them.
Ukrainians believed, and some analysts suggested, that Russian civil strife could create opportunities for their military, which is in the early stages of a counteroffensive to retake territory captured by Russian forces.
“These events would have been of great comfort to the Ukrainian government and military,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the Institute for International Strategic Studies.
Another question is what will happen to Wagner, who usually belongs to Prigogine. The military contractor has stationed forces in several countries believed to be fighting Russian interests.
According to the agreement that halted Prigozhin’s advance, Wagner troops who did not support the rebellion would be offered contracts directly with the Russian army, placing them under the control of the military brass that Prigozhin had tried to dislodge.
Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, said the deal appeared to be an emergency arrangement designed to protect Prigozhin and protect his money and his family.
“We don’t know if he saved Wagner,” O’Brien wrote in his online newsletter. “It is not clear how many of his mercenaries will accompany him to Belarus, or how many will be forced to sign agreements with the Russian military.”
In their lightning advance, Prigozhin’s forces on Saturday seized control of two military centers in southern Russia and came within 200 kilometers (120 miles) of Moscow before retreating.
In a scene that reveals Putin’s fears of a popular uprising, video taken by The Associated Press on Saturday in Rostov-on-Don showed people cheering Wagner’s troops as they left. Some ran up to shake Prigogine’s hand as he drove in the back seat of an SUV.
The regional governor said all troops had since left the city. Russian news agencies said Lipetsk officials confirmed Wagner’s forces had withdrawn from the area, which sits on the road from Rostov to Moscow.
Rostov appeared quiet on Sunday morning, with only tank tracks on the roads as reminders of Wagner’s fighters.
“Everything went well, thank God. With minimal casualties, I think. Good job,” said one of the residents, who agreed only to give his first name, Sergey. The Wagner soldiers were his heroes, he said, but not anymore. “It shouldn’t have happened, but That’s how it turned out – thanks for that!”
In the Lipetsk region, residents were unfazed by the turmoil.
“They didn’t disturb anything. They stood quietly on the sidewalk, not approaching or talking to anyone,” Milena Korbunova told AP.
The highway was dug up to slow the march, but by Sunday it had been backfilled and paved.
As Wagner’s forces moved north toward Moscow, Russian troops armed with machine guns set up checkpoints on the outskirts. State television in Chechnya reported that some 3,000 Chechen soldiers had been dragged into Ukraine without a fight and rushed there early Saturday morning.
By Sunday afternoon, troops had withdrawn from the capital, and people lined the streets and flocked to hotels. Traffic returned to normal and roadblocks and checkpoints were removed, but Red Square was closed to visitors. On highways leading to Moscow, workers repaired roads hours before in a panic.
Announcers on government-controlled television stations cast the crisis as a show of Putin’s wisdom and broadcast footage of Wagner’s troops retreating from Rostov-on-Don. People there, interviewed by Channel 1, praised Putin’s handling of the crisis.
But the US-based Institute of War Research warned that “the Kremlin now faces a deeply unstable balance”.
“The agreement is a short-term solution, not a long-term solution,” wrote the agency, which has monitored the war in Ukraine since its inception.
Prigozhin demanded his resignation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has long criticized Prigozhin for his handling of the war in Ukraine..
The US had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time. This contradicts Prigozhin’s claim that his rebellion was in response to the Russian military’s attack on his field camps in Ukraine on Friday. The Ministry of Defense has denied that the camps were attacked.
A possible impetus for Prigozhin’s rebellion was the Defense Ministry’s demand, backed by Putin, that private companies sign contracts with it by July 1. Prigozhin refused to do it.
Associated Press writers Danica Girga in London and Noman Merchant in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine-war