Russian government troops withdrew from the streets of Moscow and people flocked to parks and cafes Sunday following a short-lived revolt by mercenary forces that weakened President Vladimir Putin and raised questions about his ability to wage war in Ukraine.
The march on the capital by Wagner troops led by Yevgeny Prigozhin and the late-night deal that eventually halted it severely dented Putin’s reputation as a leader who is willing to ruthlessly punish anyone who challenges his authority. That may open the door for others who are unhappy with Putin’s two-decade grip on power, especially after his ill-fated invasion of Ukraine.
Under terms of the agreement, Prigozhin will go into exile in Belarus but will not face prosecution and his forces won’t either. Neither Putin nor Prigozhin has been heard from since the deal, brokered by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, was announced Saturday night.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the weekend’s events as “extraordinary,” recalling that 16 months ago Putin appeared poised to seize the capital of Ukraine and now he has had to defend Moscow from forces led by his onetime protege.
“I think we’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian façade,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“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.”
It was not yet clear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for the war. But it resulted in some of the best forces fighting for Russia in Ukraine being pulled from the battlefield: Prigozhin’s own Wagner troops, who had shown their effectiveness in scoring the Kremlin’s only land victory in months in Bakhmut, and Chechen soldiers sent to stop them on the approach to Moscow.
The Wagner forces’ largely unopposed, rapid advance also exposed vulnerabilities in Russia’s security and military forces.
“I honestly think that Wagner probably did more damage to Russian aerospace forces in the past day than the Ukrainian offensive has done in the past three weeks,” Michael Kofman, director of Russia Studies at the CAN research group, said in a podcast.
The Wagner forces were reported to have downed several helicopters and a military communications plane. The Defense Ministry has not commented.
Ukrainians hoped the Russian infighting could create opportunities for their army, which is in the early stages of a counteroffensive to take back territory seized by Russian forces.
Another question is what will happen to Prigozhin-owned Wagner, in general. The military contractor has deployed forces in several countries where they are believed to fight for Russian interests.
Under terms of the agreement that stopped Prigozhin’s advance, Wagner troops who didn’t back the revolt will be offered contracts directly with the Russian military, putting them under the control of the military brass that Prigozhin was trying to oust.
The deal appears to be a hasty arrangement designed to protect Prigozhin and safeguard his money and his family, said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
“What we don’t know is if he saved Wagner,” O’Brien wrote in his online newsletter. “It’s not clear how many of his mercenaries are coming with him to Belarus, or how many will be forced to now sign contracts with the Russian military.”
In their lightning advance, Prigozhin’s forces on Saturday took control of two military hubs in southern Russia and got within 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Moscow before retreating.
In a scene that plays into Putin’s fear of a popular uprising, video taken by The Associated Press on Saturday in Rostov-on-Don showed people cheering Wagner troops as they departed. Some ran to shake hands with Prigozhin as he drove away in the backseat of an SUV.
The regional governor later said that all of the troops had left the city. Russian news agencies also reported that Lipetsk authorities confirmed Wagner forces had left that region, which sits on the road to Moscow from Rosto
Rostov appeared calm Sunday morning, with only tank tracks on the roads as a reminder of the Wagner fighters.
“It all ended perfectly well, thank God. With minimal casualties, I think. Good job,” said one of the residents, who agreed only to provide his first name, Sergei. He said the Wagner soldiers used to be heroes to him, but not now. “It shouldn’t have happened, but how it ended — thanks for that!”
In the Lipetsk region, residents appeared unfazed by the turmoil.
“They did not disrupt anything. They stood calmly on the pavement and did not approach or talk to anyone,” Milena Gorbunova told the AP.
The highway had been dug up to slow the march, but by Sunday it had been refilled and paved.
As Wagner forces moved north toward Moscow, Russian troops armed with machine guns set up checkpoints on the outskirts. About 3,000 Chechen soldiers were pulled from fighting in Ukraine and rushed there early Saturday, state television in Chechnya reported.
By Sunday afternoon, the troops had withdrawn from the capital, and people swarmed the streets and flocked to cafes. Traffic returned to normal and roadblocks and checkpoints were removed, but Red Square remained closed to visitors. On highways leading to Moscow, crews repaired roads ripped up just hours earlier in panic.
Anchors on state-controlled television stations cast the deal ending the crisis as a show of Putin’s wisdom and aired footage of Wagner troops retreating from Rostov-on-Don to the relief of local residents who feared a bloody battle for control of the city. People there who were interviewed by Channel 1 praised Putin’s handling of the crisis.
But the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War warned that “the Kremlin now faces a deeply unstable equilibrium.”
The “deal is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution,” wrote the institute, which has tracked the war in Ukraine from the beginning.
The U.S. had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time. That conflicts with Prigozhin’s claim that his rebellion was a response to an attack on his field camps in Ukraine on Friday by the Russian military that he said killed a large number of his men. The Defense Ministry denied attacking the camps.
A possible motivation for Prigozhin’s rebellion was the Defense Ministry’s demand, which Putin backed, that private companies sign contracts with it by July 1. Prigozhin had refused to do it.
Associated Press writers Danica Kirka in London, and Nomaan Merchant in Washington, contributed to this report.