ROSTOV-ON-DON/ VORONEZH, (Russia): Heavily armed Russian mercenaries withdrew from the southern Russian city of Rostov overnight under a deal that halted their rapid advance on Moscow but left unanswered questions about President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.
Ending their mutiny, fighters of the Wagner group headed back to their bases in return for guarantees for their safety. Their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, will move to Belarus under the deal mediated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested the turmoil in Russia might not be over and could take months to play out, while Italy’s foreign minister said it had shattered the “myth” of Russian unity.
Putin has not made public comments since the deal was struck to de-escalate the crisis.
State television released excerpts on Sunday of an interview in which Putin said he was giving top priority to the conflict in Ukraine. However the interview appeared to have been recorded before the mutiny and he made no reference to Saturday’s events.
State television also said Putin would attend a meeting of Russia’s Security Council this coming week, without elaborating.
Prigozhin, 62, was seen leaving the district military headquarters in Rostov - hundreds of miles south of Moscow - late on Saturday in a sport utility vehicle. His whereabouts on Sunday were not known.
Prigozhin, a former Putin ally and ex-convict whose forces have fought the bloodiest battles of the 16-month war in Ukraine, said his decision to advance on Moscow was intended to remove corrupt and incompetent Russian commanders he blames for botching the war.
‘CRACKS’ IN THE
Western leaders have expressed concern over the turmoil in Russia, which has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
“We’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian facade. It is too soon to tell exactly where they go, and when they get there. But certainly, we have all sorts of new questions that Putin is going to have to address in the weeks and months ahead,” Blinken told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program on Sunday.
Blinken also said the United States remained focused on “resolutely and relentlessly” helping Ukraine to defend itself and recover territory seized by Russia over the past 16 months.
China, a key ally of Putin, made no initial public reference to the turmoil, eventually saying after talks with a visiting senior Russian diplomat on Sunday that it supported Russia’s efforts to maintain its national stability.
After capturing Rostov - the main rear logistical hub for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine - the mercenaries raced hundreds of miles north on Saturday, in what Prigozhin called a “march for justice”, transporting tanks and armoured trucks and smashing through barricades set up to stop them, before the deal to withdraw was reached.
Videos shared on social media from Rostov overnight purportedly showed the mercenaries withdrawing in a convoy of armoured vehicles, tanks and coaches to the sound of cheers, chants of “Wagner” and celebratory gunfire from residents.
Reuters was able to verify the location of the video but not the date that it was filmed.
“Take care of yourselves,” shouted one woman.
The show of support for Wagner’s short-lived insurrection was striking in a country that is increasingly intolerant of public criticism of Putin and his rule.
The mood on the streets of Rostov on Sunday was mainly one of relief.
“It was scary... Everyone is glad that nothing bad happened... It did not come to an armed clash,” said resident Dmitry, who declined to give his surname. “There are very serious problems in the country, and they need to be solved.”
In Moscow, where there was little evidence on Sunday of increased security, some expressed a measure of understanding for Prigozhin’s position.
“The opinions of a person who has a certain weight in society should probably be heard by the authorities,” said Oleg.
Monday has been declared a non-working day in the Russian capital to allow time for things to settle.
Under the deal, brokered late on Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a criminal case opened against Prigozhin for armed mutiny would be dropped, Prigozhin would move to Belarus, and Wagner fighters who rallied to his cause would face no action, in recognition of their previous service to Russia.
Peskov said Lukashenko had offered to mediate, with Putin’s approval, because he had known Prigozhin personally for around 20 years.
In a televised address during Saturday’s drama, Putin said the rebellion put Russia’s very existence under threat, vowing to punish those behind the revolt and drawing parallels with the chaos of 1917 that had led to the Bolshevik revolution.
Prigozhin has for months accused Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, of incompetence and of withholding ammunition from his fighters as they battled to take Bakhmut in Ukraine.
Wagner, whose men in Ukraine include thousands of ex-prisoners recruited from Russian jails, has grown into a sprawling international business with mining interests and fighters in Africa and the Middle East.
This month, Prigozhin defied orders to sign a contract placing his troops under Defence Ministry command. He launched the rebellion on Friday after alleging that the military had killed some of his men in an air strike. The Defence Ministry denied this.
Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani told Italian newspaper Il Messaggero that Putin created the conditions for Saturday’s insurrection by allowing Prigozhin to build up such a formidable private army.
“The myth of the unity of Putin’s Russia is over... It’s the inevitable outcome when you support and finance a legion of mercenaries,” Tajani said in the interview, published on Sunday.
“One thing is certain: the Russian front is weaker than yesterday. I hope that peace (in Ukraine) will now be closer”.
The revolt came just weeks into the start of Ukraine’s strongest counteroffensive drive since Moscow’s invasion in February last year.