Wagner Group troops turn back from Moscow; Prigozhin charges dropped

Soldiers from the private Wagner Group detain some civilians as they block a street in downtown Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia, on Saturday. They later agreed to turn back after a deal was brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Photo by EPA-EFE
1 of 4 | Soldiers from the private Wagner Group detain some civilians as they block a street in downtown Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia, on Saturday. They later agreed to turn back after a deal was brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Photo by EPA-EFE

June 24 (UPI) -- The Wagner Group of private mercenaries have stopped their march towards Moscow and are returning to their field camps, while charges against group's leader have been dropped, the Kremlin said Saturday.

Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said in an audio recording posted to his Telegram channel late Saturday that his troops have turned back from their advance on the Russian capital.


The move came after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko intervened and played mediator between Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Belta, the official news agency of Belarus.

Official media reported that Lukashenko, a Putin ally, held talks between both men Saturday.

"Understanding the entire responsibility that Russian blood may be spilt on both sides, we are turning back our columns and are going backwards to field camps according to plan," Prigozhin said in the message, according to the Russian RIA Novosti news agency.


Prigozhin confirmed his troops were approximately 125 miles from Moscow but would now turn back.

"We turn our columns around and leave in the opposite direction to the field camps according to the plan," he says in the recording.

Pirgozhin had said his troops were on a "march of justice" after accusing the Russian defense ministry of carrying out a rocket attack, killing several of his men.

As a part of the agreement brokered by Lukashenko, a treason case against Prigozhin will be dropped and he will leave the country for Belarus, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov told official media.

Reports also indicated the Wagner forces could be offered security guarantees and a role in the Russian military.

Putin earlier in the day accused Prigozhin of treason as his mercenaries occupied Russia's southern military headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don.

In a nationally televised address, Putin accused Prigozhin of staging a mutiny against Russia and vowed that Russia would defend itself from "internal treachery" as it seeks to fend off a counteroffensive on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine.

"We will defend both our people and our statehood from any threats, including internal treachery. What we have been confronted with can be precisely called treachery," Putin said, according to the official TASS news agency. "The unbounded ambitions and personal interests have led to a treason and a betrayal of the country and its people."


Describing Prigozhin's actions as "a betrayal" and "a knife in the back of our people," the Russian leader vowed that a civil war "will not be allowed to repeat itself in the country."

Putin's 24-year grip on the country appeared to be hanging in the balance in the hours after Prigozhin accused the Russian military of launching a deadly strike on his troops and vowed to retaliate.

That changed Saturday evening after news of the Lukashenko-brokered peace deal.

In his video released earlier on Friday, Prigozhin accused the Russian elite of pillaging Ukraine's eastern Donbas region since 2014, asserting they wanted more of the country and then lied about the reasons for the war.

"The Ministry of Defense is trying to deceive the public, deceive the president and tell a story that there was some crazy aggression by Ukraine, that -- together with the whole NATO bloc -- Ukraine was planning to attack us," he said.

The Kremlin responded by ordering the Federal Security Service to open a criminal case into what it called Prigozhin's "call for an armed mutiny" and urged Wagner fighters not to obey his orders and to put him under arrest.


Prigozhin on Saturday claimed his fighters had taken control of all military installations the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don after marching his men out of Ukraine and multiple reports indicated his troops are heading north toward the Russian capital.

In an audio message posted on Wagner's Telegram page, Prigozhin said his forces took the HQ of Russia's Southern Military District "without a single shot being fired [by us]," the BBC reported.

British military analysts said Wagner troops had taken key security security sites in Rostov-on-Don, including the southern headquarters, which runs all of Russia's military operations in Ukraine, and were now moving north, encountering little military resistance. The facility in that city includes nuclear weapons.

Prigozhin is "almost certainly aiming to get to Moscow," the British Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence update earlier in the day, calling the situation at the time "the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made his first comments on the situation earlier on Saturday, stating in a Twitter post that Russia has relied on propaganda to mask its weakness but now "there is so much chaos that no lie can hide it."

The longer Russia continues its all-out war against Ukraine, the more problems it risks facing on its own territory, he wrote.

"Everyone who chooses the path of evil destroys himself. Who sends columns of troops to destroy the lives of another country and cannot stop them from fleeing and betraying when life resists," he wrote.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday he had spoken to the Group of Seven foreign ministers and the European Union's foreign affairs chief about the situation in Russia.

The United States, he said, "will stay in close coordination with Allies and partners as the situation continues to develop."

In an indication of how seriously he was taking the threat, Putin on Saturday he signed a law establishing 30-day jail sentences for those violating martial law where it has been imposed, RIA Novosti reported.


War in Ukraine: a look back at the year after Russian invasion

Ukrainian demonstrators rally in Kyiv on February 12, 2022 to show unity amid U.S. warnings of an imminent Russian invasion. Photo by Oleksandr Khomenko/UPI | License Photo

Latest Headlines