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25 czerwca 2023

Situation In Russia Said To Be Calming, But U.S. Says Turmoil For Putin Not Over

RFE/RL's Russian Service

Yevgeny Prigozhin is to leave Russia for Belarus under an agreement announced by the Kremlin after the Wagner mercenary group leader abruptly ordered his forces to abandon their advance toward Moscow following a tense, chaotic 24 hours that handed President Vladimir Putin the biggest threat to his more than two-decade hold on power and raised the prospect of civil war.

Although the crisis for the Kremlin appears to have eased for now, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on June 25 said the fallout from the armed insurrection could take months to play out.

“I think we’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian facade. We have all sorts of new questions that Putin is going to have to address in the weeks and months ahead,” Blinken told NBC News.

Separately, Blinken told ABC News that the Kremlin’s woes will likely assist Ukraine in its defense against the Russian invasion.

"To the extent that the Russians are distracted and divided, it may make their prosecution of aggression against Ukraine more difficult. So, I think this is clearly -- we see cracks emerging. Where they go, if anywhere, when they get there, very hard to say. I don't want to speculate on it," Blinken said.

Prigozhin, whose troops had been the most effective fighters among Putin’s forces since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, had turned on the Russian military and led what was called an armed insurrection, ordering his forces -- which he claimed numbered 25,000 -- to advance toward Moscow before he halted his so-called “march for justice" on June 24.

The Kremlin later confirmed it had reached a deal with Prigozhin, 62, to end the insurrection, saying the mercenary leader will move to Belarus and that a criminal case against him will be dropped. It wasn't immediately known where Prigozhin was early on June 25 or if he had left for Belarus.

In return, Wagner fighters who joined Prigozhin on his march would not be prosecuted, the Kremlin said. As part of the deal, Wagner fighters who did not take part in the march will come under the direct control of the Russian military -- a move Prigozhin had vehemently resisted while leading his troops in the Kremlin's war on Ukraine.

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka helped mediate the deal, the Kremlin said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin and Lukashenka had guaranteed Prigozhin's safety.

Hours later, Rostov regional Governor Vasily Golubev said on Telegram that Wagner forces were pulling out of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don in convoys, accompanied by tanks and other vehicles, and were headed for their field camps. The mercenary fighters earlier had captured control of a military base in the city of 1.2 million people near the Ukraine border.

Local authorities in neighboring Lipetsk and Voronezh provinces also said Wagner units were withdrawing from the southern regions on June 25.

WATCH: Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the mercenary Wagner Group, is greeted by locals as he left Rostov-on-Don in the back seat of a car late on June 24.

By midday on June 25, there were still no reports of Prigozhin arriving in Belarus.

It remained unclear whether Prigozhin would be joined in Belarus by any Wagner troops, and what role, if any, he might have there.

Also, it was not immediately clear where they would be based or how many had participated in the march toward Moscow. They previously had been fighting in Ukraine, but Prigozhin had announced they were giving up their positions to the Russian military.

A former British Army general warned of a potential attack on Ukraine from Belarus by Wagner fighters if large numbers of the mercenaries follow Prigozhin into exile there.

"The fact that he's gone to Belarus is a matter of some concern," former Chief of General Staff Richard Dannatt told Sky News on June 25.

Putin had vowed to punish those behind the armed uprising led by his onetime protege. In a televised speech to the nation, Putin called the rebellion a "betrayal" and "treason."

Prigozhin claimed his fighters had reached to within 200 kilometers of the capital without spilling any blood, a possible hint to the Kremlin of his support within elements of the nation's security structures.

WATCH: RFE/RL reporters captured events in Voronezh and Rostov-on-Don amid an armed rebellion by the Wagner mercenary group that rocked Russia on June 24. The group launched a military column toward Moscow before its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, announced he was calling it off to "avoid bloodshed."

"We are turning our columns around and going back to the field camps according to our plan," Prigozhin said in a short, fiery audio message posted to Telegram on June 24.

State-owned RIA Novosti reported on June 25 that the situation around the headquarters of Russia's Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don was calm and street traffic had resumed.

In a video on the agency's Telegram messaging app, which it said was taken in the city, a municipal worker was sweeping a street and cars were moving along another street. The report could not be independently verified.

The insurrection, although having failed, has left the authoritarian Russian leader weakened and vulnerable, experts say.

“The fact that this was moderated by Lukashenka strikes me as embarrassing in the extreme,” Sam Greene, a Russia expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said in a tweet. “This whole episode may have punctured the air of inevitability that has kept him aloft for the past 23 years.”

'Complete Chaos'

Putin must now contend with the ramifications of the mutiny as Ukraine pushes ahead with its large-scale counteroffensive, a crucial endeavor that could shape the course of the conflict, including further opening the spigot of lethal Western military aid.

"Today the world saw that the masters of Russia do not control anything. Nothing at all. Just complete chaos," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address late on June 24.

Prigozhin’s forces swept into Rostov-on-Don in the early morning hours of June 24 where they easily seized key infrastructure, before moving north toward Moscow with little resistance, shocking the country and the world.

The Russian military reportedly fired on the Wagner forces at one point as they made their way along the highway toward Moscow, though RFE/RL could not confirm such an incident.

Prigozhin's insurrection came in the wake of months of intense public fighting with Russia's military leadership over its war strategy in Ukraine and ammunition supplies.

Over the spring, the Wagner leader repeatedly accused Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov of intentionally holding back supplies of ammunition to his troops in Bakhmut, the site of the war's bloodiest battle.

Semon Pegov, a pro-Russia military blogger, said in an interview with Prigozhin on April 29 that there was speculation the Russian military was withholding ammunition from Wagner for fear the mercenary leader would use it to storm Moscow and take power.

Prigozhin responded that it was an "interesting idea" but claimed he hadn't considered it.

However, just a month later, after his troops took Bakhmut in the first Russian victory of the war in about 10 months, Prigozhin toured several Russian regions, giving interviews to local media in what some experts said was a clear sign of his political ambition.

Meanwhile, Putin appeared to be siding with the Defense Ministry in its spat with Prigozhin, appearing alongside Shoigu in a sign of support.

Peskov said following the June 24 turmoil that there was no change in Putin's support for Shoigu.

In his audio statement announcing his troops' pullback, Prigozhin claimed the Kremlin had been seeking to disband his Wagner group.

Aleksandar Djokic, a political analyst, said in a tweet that Prigozhin had probably "caught wind" of the fact that he had lost Putin's favor and carried out the mutiny to prove his worth.

U.S. spy agencies picked up signs days ago that Prigozhin was preparing to rise up against his country’s defense establishment, U.S. media reported on June 24.

Intelligence officials conducted briefings at the White House, the Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill about the potential for unrest in Russia a full day before it unfolded, according to the Washington Post and New York Times.

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