Moscow took a step back from the civil war with Wagner. But the danger is not over, warn the experts

Russia glimpsed the threat of an armed insurgency over the weekend, with Wagner Group mercenaries marching towards Moscow as President Vladimir Putin vowed revenge – all before a sudden deal appeared to defuse the crisis as quickly as it appeared.

The immediate risk of bloodshed appears to have passed, but much remains uncertain; experts warn that the rare uprising is still likely to have consequences down the line.

Putin must now deal with the consequences of the most serious challenge to his authority since he came to power more than 20 years ago, which seemed to have him on his back for a day and a half.

The fate of Wagnerian leader Yevgeny Prigozhin – who led the provocative march and the capture of towns along the way – remains murky. The typical outspoken oligarch has remained silent on the Minsk-brokered deal, which would see him sent to Belarus and his troops absorbed into the Russian military.

Neither the Kremlin nor Belarusian officials could say his whereabouts on Sunday.

Here’s what we know.

What’s the latest?

According to the agreement described by the Kremlin and the Belarusian government, Prigozhin agreed to leave Russia for neighboring Belarus. However, his whereabouts remain unknown.

Wagner’s fighters leave the military headquarters they had briefly occupied in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24. – Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters

Belarusian officials told CNN on Sunday they had no details on Prigozhin’s status in Belarus and could not confirm whether he had ever arrived in the country.

The press service of Prigozhin’s Concord management company declined to provide an update, telling CNN only that the warlord “sends his regards to everyone and will answer questions when he has good communication.” .

A Kremlin spokesman also said a criminal case against Prigozhin for the rebellion would be dropped.

Wagner’s fighters will now sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry, the spokesman also said – a move Prigozhin had previously dismissed as an attempt to bring his paramilitary forces to heel.

Videos authenticated and geotagged by CNN on Saturday showed Prigozhin and his forces retreating from the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.

How did it happen?

The crisis in Russia erupted on Friday when Prigozhin accused the Russian army of attacking a Wagner camp and killing his men – and vowed to retaliate with force.

Prigozhin then led his troops to Rostov-on-Don and claimed to have taken control of key military installations in the Voronezh region, where there was an apparent clash between Wagner’s units and Russian forces.

Prigozhin claimed it was not a coup but a “march of justice”. But that did little to appease Moscow, with a senior security official calling Prigozhin’s actions an “organized coup”, according to Russian state media.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation after an insurrection led by Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 24. – Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik via AP

The Russian Defense Ministry denied attacking Wagner’s troops, and the Russian Internal Security Forces opened a criminal case against Prigozhin.

Then came a remarkable national speech from Putin.

In a speech that was broadcast across Russia on Saturday morning local time, a visibly furious Putin vowed to punish those “on the path to betrayal.”

Wagner’s “betrayal” was a “stab in the back of our country and our people”, he said, comparing the group’s actions to the 1917 Russian Revolution which overthrew Tsar Nicholas II in middle of the First World War.

Things were tense on the ground as civilians in Voronezh were ordered to stay home. Meanwhile, Moscow has tightened its security measures in the capital, declaring Monday a day off. Photos show Russian forces in body armor and brandishing automatic weapons near a highway outside Moscow.

All signs pointed to an impending armed confrontation in the capital as rumors and uncertainty swirled.

Then almost as suddenly as it began, the short-lived mutiny fizzled out, with the Belarus deal appearing to put out the fire – at least for now.

What’s next for Prigozhin and Wagner?

Much remains unclear, such as what will become of Prigozhin’s role within Wagner and the Ukrainian war, and whether all of his fighters will be under contract with the Russian military.

The Kremlin spokesman said Saturday he “cannot respond” to the stance Prigozhin will take in Belarus. Prigozhin himself provided few details of his agreement to halt the advance on Moscow.

The Wagner Group is “an independent combat company” with different terms than the Russian military, retired U.S. Army Major Mike Lyons said on Saturday. For example, Wagner’s fighters are better fed than the military – meaning full assimilation would be difficult.

“Maybe some will split up,” he added. “These people are loyal to the man, Prigozhin, not to the country, not to the mission. I think we have many more questions that are unanswered at this time.

The danger is not out of the question for the Wagner boss either, experts say.

“Putin does not forgive traitors. Even if Putin says, ‘Prigozhin, you’re going to Belarus,’ he’s still a traitor and I don’t think Putin will ever forgive him,” said Jill Dougherty, former CNN Moscow bureau chief and longtime expert on Russian affairs. .

It’s possible we could see Prigozhin ‘get killed in Belarus’, she added – but that’s a difficult dilemma for Moscow because as long as Prigozhin ‘has some kind of support, he’s a threat, where as it happens”.

What does this mean for Putin?

Putin also faces real problems.

Several pundits told CNN that while the Russian president survived the standoff, he now looks weak — not just to the world and its enemies, but to his own people and his military. This could pose a risk if there are skeptics or rivals in Moscow who see an opportunity to undermine Putin’s position.

“If I were Putin, I would be worried to see these people on the streets of Rostov cheering on the people of Wagner as they leave,” Dougherty said.

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in the backseat of a vehicle departing from Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24. – Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters

A video, geotagged and verified by CNN, showed cheering crowds as Prigozhin’s vehicle left Rostov-on-Don. The vehicle stopped when an individual approached and shook Prigozhin’s hand.

“Why are average Russians on the street cheering on people who just tried to make a coup?” said Dougherty. “That means maybe they support them or like them. Either way, this is really bad news for Putin.

Who is Prigozhin? Why would he do that?

Prigozhin has known Putin since the 1990s and was dubbed “Putin’s boss” after winning lucrative catering contracts with the Kremlin. But the Russian-backed separatist movements in Ukraine in 2014 laid the groundwork for Prigozhin’s transformation into a warlord.

Prigozhin founded Wagner as a shadowy group of mercenaries who fought both in eastern Ukraine and, increasingly, for Russian-backed causes around the world.

Wagner was thrust into the spotlight during the Ukrainian War, with fighters seemingly gaining tangible progress where regular Russian troops failed. However, his brutal tactics are said to have caused a large number of casualties.

As the war dragged on, Prigozhin and Russia’s military leadership engaged in a public feud, with Wagner’s boss accusing the military of not giving his forces ammunition and lamenting lack of battlefield success regular military units.

He has repeatedly criticized their handling of the conflict, presenting himself as ruthless and competent in comparison.

Prigozhin was always careful to blame Russia’s military leadership, not Putin, and had defended the reasoning for war in Ukraine.

It was until Friday when the uprising started.

In a remarkable statement, Prigozhin said that Moscow invaded Ukraine under false pretenses devised by the Russian Defense Ministry, and that Russia was actually losing ground on the battlefield.

Steve Hall, former head of CIA operations in Russia, said even seasoned Russia watchers were taken aback by recent events.

“Everyone is scratching their heads,” he told CNN. “The only sense I can make of a day like today, you have two guys who got into untenable situations and had to find their way.”

Hall said Prigozhin may have felt like he bit off more than he could chew as his column of troops marched towards Moscow. But at the same time, Putin faced the very real prospect of having to defeat some 25,000 Wagnerian mercenaries.

Sending Prigozhin to Belarus was a life-saving move for both sides.

But Hall said Putin ultimately comes out worse and weaker.

“Putin should have seen it coming literally months ago. We’ll see how it ends. I don’t think the story is over,” Hall said.

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