Key events

More from the ISW analysis, which says that the optics of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko playing a direct role in the halting of a military advance on Moscow are “humiliating to [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and may have secured Lukashenko other benefits”.

Lukashenko’s reported access to previously established channels and successful negotiation with [Wagner leader Yevgeny] Prigozhin likely indicates Lukashenko has unspecified influence over Prigozhin he could leverage to deescalate the situation …

Lukashenko will likely seek to use the de-escalation of the armed rebellion to advance his goals, such as delaying the formalization of the Russia-Belarus Union State or preventing Putin from using Belarusian forces in Ukraine.

The Kremlin struggled to put together a coherent response to the Wagner mutiny “highlighting internal security weaknesses likely due to surprise and the impact of heavy losses in Ukraine,” the Institute for the Study of War has said in its latest analysis of the conflict.

Russian authorities mobilised Rosgvardia, the Russian National Police, the US thinktank wrote, but “ISW has not observed any reports or footage suggesting that Rosgvardia units engaged with Wagner at any point”.

Rosgvardia’s founding mission is to protect internal threats to the security of the Russian government such as an advance on Moscow, and it is notable that Rosgvardia failed to engage even as Wagner captured critical military assets in Rostov-on-Don and destroyed Russian military aircraft

It also noted that though Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said he had mobilised his forces – which supposedly specialise in domestic security – in response to the Wagner advance, they also “unsurprisingly” never engaged with Wagner. This is “in line with Kadyrov’s paramount objective of maintaining his own internal security force,” the ISW said.

It concluded:

The Kremlin’s dedicated internal security organs failed to respond to an independent military force capturing the headquarters of the SMD [southern military district] and advancing on Moscow – and Wagner likely could have reached the outskirts of Moscow if Prigozhin chose to order them to do so.

Graham Russell

The extraordinary uprising by the Wagner mercenary force so crucial to Vladimir Putin’s war machine in Ukraine has dominated headlines around the world and raised question marks about the Russian president’s grip on power.

The Observer says “Rebel chief halts tank advance on Moscow ‘to stop bloodshed’” next to an image of a Wagner tank in Rostov-on-Don. Analysis by Luke Harding also features on the front, in which he says the mutiny led by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves Putin at his weakest in decades.

Bild in Germany has the headline: “Uprising against Putin” next to images of Wagner fighters. Its subhead reads: “The putsch attempt in Russia and what that means for us.” Die Welt and Der Spiegel both speak of a “power struggle” in Russia on their front pages.

The New York Times carried analysis on what the short-lived mutiny said about Putin’s hold on power. Correspondent Peter Baker noted the dangers and the opportunity the volatility presented to the US; the danger being an under-threat president in charge of nuclear missiles, and the opportunity a weakening of Russia’s war effort, to Ukraine’s gain.

Read our full wrap of what the papers say:

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,” Bendett 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.”

The Guardian’s own correspondents, Andrew Roth, who reported on the reaction in Rostov to the shortlived mutiny, and Pjotr Sauer, who covered Prigozhin’s march into Russia from Ukraine as it happened, had these observations to make:

Prigozhin army: Shoots down multiple Russian mil aircraft, kills at least a dozen soldiers, forces Russian army to dig anti-tank ditches in the M4 and declare counterterrorist operation as they march on Moscow for potential civil war

Rostov: 🤩🤳

— Andrew Roth (@Andrew__Roth) June 24, 2023

Rob Lee, a military expert at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, has posted some analysis of the last 24 hours, which have left many of us scratching our heads – indeed 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.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has condemned Prigozhin in a post on the Telegram messaging app, saying bloodshed had been averted this time but that it “could happen”.

“I thought some people could be trusted,” he wrote. “That they sincerely love their Motherland as real patriots to the marrow of their bones. But it turned out that for the sake of personal ambitions, benefits and because of arrogance, people cannot give a damn about affection and love for the Fatherland.”

He called on Wagner fighters “to continue to be sober in their decisions”, warning “such actions can lead to disastrous results”.

“Now everything ended peacefully, without bloodshed, but it could happen,” he continued, saying that a future rebellion would result in “the harsh suppression and destruction of anyone who encroaches on the integrity of the Russian Federation”.

On Saturday Kadyrov, an ally of Putin, called Prigozhin a traitor and said he was sending Chechen troops to squash the mutiny.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (R) meets Russian president Vladimir Putin. Photograph: SPUTNIK/Reuters

A bit more from the US reports claiming that US spy agencies suspected Prigozhin was planning something earlier this month.

A key trigger was an order from 10 June, in which the Russian Ministry of Defence ordered all volunteer units to sign contracts with the government, the Washington Post reports. This would have meant Prigozhin’s losing control of Wagner.

Ukraine was also monitoring Prigozhin, believing that he might mobilise his troops against Moscow, a Ukrainian official said, according to the paper.

The New York Times says the prior knowledge of impending events was similar to the way in which US intelligence got wind of Russian plans to invade Ukraine at the end of 2021.

However, while the US tried to warn Ukraine publicly then and deter Putin from carrying out his plans intelligence agencies in this case said nothing.

“US officials felt that if they said anything, Mr Putin could accuse them of orchestrating a coup. And they clearly had little interest in helping Mr. Putin avoid a major, embarrassing fracturing of his support,” the Times reported.

Putin ‘obviously very afraid’ and ‘probably hiding’, Zelenskiy says

Russian president Vladimir Putin is “obviously very afraid” and “probably hiding”, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said in his latest evening address.

“The man from the Kremlin is obviously very afraid and probably hiding somewhere, not showing himself. I am sure that he is no longer in Moscow … He knows what he is afraid of because he himself created this threat,” Zelenskiy said.

Putin has not commented on the Belarus-brokered deal that negotiated Prigozhin’s exit from Russia and the withdrawal of Wagner troops from Rostov. He is believed to have left Moscow on a plane on Saturday afternoon and his whereabouts are unclear.

His apparent departure from the capital contrasts notably with that of Zelenskiy, who remained in Kyiv when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last year.

“Today the world saw that the bosses of Russia do not control anything. Nothing at all. Complete chaos. Complete absence of any predictability. And it is happening on Russian territory, which is fully loaded with weapons,” said Zelenskiy.

“In one day, they lost several of their million-plus cities and showed all Russian bandits, mercenaries, oligarchs and anyone else how easy it is to capture Russian cities and, probably, arsenals with weapons.”

Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The wires have been sending through images from Rostov, from where Wagner troops are withdrawing.

Many people appeared to be perfectly happy to see them on the streets and Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was pictured smiling and shaking hands with civilians as he left the headquarters of the southern district command.

Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin smiles as he leaves Rostov. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Civilians exchange high fives with Wagner soldiers. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A girl poses with Wagner soldiers on a tank. Photograph: Arkady Budnitsky/EPA
A local man chats with Wagner soldiers in Rostov. Photograph: Arkady Budnitsky/EPA

US suspected Prigozhin plan to launch action against military leadership, US media reports

US spy agencies picked up information suggesting Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was planning to take action against Russia’s military leadership as early as mid-June, US media has reported.

Over the past two weeks there was “high concern” about what may happen regarding president Vladimir Putin’ grip on power and the country’s nuclear arsenal, the Washington Post reported, citing anonymous US officials.

The exact timing and nature of Prigozhin’s plans were not clear until Friday, when the Wagner leader first began posting about an alleged Russian rocket attack on his forces, but “there were enough signals to be able to tell the leadership … that something was up,” the Post quoted one official as saying.

According to the New York Times, senior American national security officials had indications as early as Wednesday that Prigozhin was preparing to take action and intelligence officials conducted briefings with the Biden administration and defence officials on the same day.

A narrow group of congressional leaders were informed on Thursday, when additional confirmation of the plot came in, the Times reported.

Wagner boss Prigozhin agrees to call off march on Moscow and leave the country

Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has agreed to leave Russia and ordered his fighters to withdraw from Rostov and halt their march on Moscow, under the terms of a deal negotiated by Belarus.

At the end of an extraordinary day, during which a visibly angry Vladimir Putin had made an emergency television broadcast railing against the “deadly threat to our state”, Progozhin said that he wanted to avoid shedding Russian blood and would order his troops back to their bases instead.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the criminal case that had been opened against Prigozhin for armed mutiny would be dropped, and 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.

Videos later showed Prigozhin, who said his men had reached within 125 miles (200 km) of the capital, and his fighters leaving Rostov.

Here’s our full report by Andrew Roth and Pjotr Sauer:

Opening summary

Events in Russia have been unfolding at breakneck pace over the past 24 hours after Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a march on Moscow aiming to oust the country’s military leadership, only to call it off on the same day and agree to leave the country for Belarus.

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.

I’m Helen Livingstone and I’ll be bringing you all the latest news on the conflict in Ukraine and the crisis in Russia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *