Russia, June 25 (Reuters) – Mutinous Russian mercenaries who surged most of the way to Moscow have agreed to turn back to avoid bloodshed, their leader said on Saturday, in a de-escalation of what had become a major challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.
The fighters of the Wagner private army were just 200 km (125 miles) from the capital, said the leader, former Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin. The rebels had captured the city of Rostov hundreds of miles to the south before racing across the country.
“They wanted to disband the Wagner military company. We embarked on a march of justice on June 23. In 24 hours we got to within 200 km of Moscow. In this time we did not spill a single drop of our fighters’ blood,” Prigozhin said in an audio message.
“Now the moment has come when blood could be spilled. Understanding … that Russian blood will be spilled on one side, we are turning our columns around and going back to field camps as planned.”
The decision to halt further movement across Russia by the Wagner group was brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in return for guarantees for their safety, his office said. There was no immediate word on the deal from Putin.
Earlier, Prigozhin said that his “march for justice” was intended to remove corrupt and incompetent Russian commanders he blames for botching the war in Ukraine.
In a televised address from the Kremlin, Putin said Russia’s very existence was under threat.
“We are fighting for the lives and security of our people, for our sovereignty and independence, for the right to remain Russia, a state with a thousand-year history,” he said, vowing punishment for those who “who prepared an armed insurrection”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the Wagner revolt exposed complete chaos in Russia.
“Today the world can see that the masters of Russia control nothing. And that means nothing. Simply complete chaos. An absence of any predictability,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.
Video obtained by Reuters showed troop carriers and two flatbed trucks each carrying a tank driving 30 miles (50 km) beyond Voronezh, more than half way to Moscow. A helicopter fired on them near Voronezh.
More than 100 firefighters were in action at a fuel depot ablaze in Voronezh. Video footage obtained by Reuters showed it exploding in a fireball shortly after a helicopter flew by.
Further along the road, video showed, vehicles apparently placed as barricades to slow Wagner’s advance had been tossed to one side.
Prigozhin, whose private army fought the bloodiest battles in Ukraine even as he feuded for months with the military top brass, said he had captured the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District in the city of Rostov without firing a shot.
‘WILL THERE BE CIVIL WAR?’
In Rostov, which serves as the main rear logistical hub for Russia’s entire invasion force in Ukraine, residents milled about calmly, filming on mobile phones as Wagner fighters in armoured vehicles and battle tanks took up positions.
One tank was wedged between stucco buildings with posters advertising the circus. Another had “Siberia” daubed in red paint across the front, an apparent statement of intent to sweep across the breadth of Russia.
“Will there be civil war?” a woman in Rostov asked the mercenaries who took over the city. “No, everything will be fine,” a fighter answered.
The region surrounding Rostov is an important oil, gas and grains hub.
In a series of hectic messages overnight, Prigozhin had demanded that Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov should come to see him in Rostov.
Western capitals said they were closely following the situation in nuclear-armed Russia. U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany and Britain, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to counterparts from G7 nations.
The top U.S. military officer, Army General Mark Milley, cancelled a scheduled trip to the Middle East because of the situation in Russia.
The insurrection risked leaving Russia’s invasion force in Ukraine in disarray, just as Kyiv is launching its strongest counteroffensive since the war began in February last year.
“This represents the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times,” Britain’s defence ministry said.