Wagner Chief Prigozhin Calls Off March To Moscow, Easing Tensions


(RFE/RL) — Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Russian mercenary group Wagner, said he told his forces to immediately halt their advance on Moscow and return to their bases in Ukraine as fear gripped the country about a potential deadly power struggle. 

“We are turning our columns around and going back to field camps,” Prigozhin said in an audio post on Telegram on June 24, adding that he did not want to “spill Russian blood.”

Prigozhin said his troops, which he claimed numbered 25,000, were just 200 kilometers (120 miles) from the Russian capital when he made the decision. He did not say whether he had spoken with the Kremlin or the Russian military before announcing the move.

The insurrection, which began a day earlier, heralded the most serious challenge to Putin’s leadership during his nearly 24 years at the top of Russia’s power structure and comes at a critical time for the Kremlin’s war effort in Ukraine.

In a sign of the gravity of the situation, Putin was forced earlier in the day to address the nation, saying in televised remarks that he would do “everything to protect the country” and called for national unity as Russia “engaged in its heaviest struggle for its future.” 

The Kremlin must contend with the insurrection amid Ukraine’s counteroffensive, a crucial endeavor that may shape the course of the conflict, including further opening the spigot of lethal Western military aid. 

As the uprising unfolded, Putin called the leaders of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkey to inform them of the situation. Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

‘Personal Ambition’

Prigozhin’s forces swept into Rostov-on-Don in Russia’s south in the early morning hours where it easily seized key infrastructure. 

Putin described the private Wagner mercenary group’s occupation of the city as an “armed mutiny” and said that “decisive action” would be taken to stabilize the situation in southwestern Russia. The Russian military reportedly fired on the Wagner forces later in the day as they advanced along the highway toward Moscow.

Putin said Prigozhin had “betrayed” his country out of “personal ambition.”

Prigozhin responded promptly to Putin’s allegations of betrayal, saying in an audio message on Telegram after the speech that the Russian president was “deeply mistaken” and that he and his forces “are patriots of the motherland.”

In his address to the nation, Putin vowed to punish all “traitors” involved in the Wagner action, which he said was a “stab in the back” in the face of what he characterized as a Western threat to Russian sovereignty.

“It is a blow to Russia, to our people. And our actions to defend the fatherland against such a threat will be harsh,” Putin said. “All those who deliberately stepped on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed insurrection, who took the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, will answer both to the law and to our people.”

Putin added that “the entire military, economic, and information machine of the West,” which has backed Ukraine following Russia’s unprovoked all-out invasion in February 2022, was “effectively aimed against us.”

Top Russian officials and personalities, including former President Dmitry Medvedev, Russian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Kirill, and Russian State Duma head Vyacheslav Volodin, echoed Putin’s call for Russian citizens to rally and for Wagner troops to halt the insurrection.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Putin ally who has headed the republic in Russia’s North Caucasus region since 2007, said he was deploying Chechen troops to “preserve Russia’s unity and protect its statehood.”

‘Interesting Idea’

Prigozhin began his march toward Moscow on June 23 after accusing the Russian Defense Ministry of launching rocket attacks on the rear camps of his forces in Ukraine using artillery and attack helicopters that allegedly killed many of his men. 

“Those who destroyed our lads, who destroyed the lives of many tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, will be punished. I ask that no one offer resistance,” Prigozhin said following the alleged attack. 

The Kremlin called the mercenary leader’s accusation a lie while some analysts said video of the alleged attack looked like a false flag operation and suggested Priogzhin had long been planning to seize power. 

Prigozhin’s insurrection comes on the heels of months of intense public fighting with Russia’s military leadership over the war strategy in Ukraine and ammunition supplies. 

Over the spring, he 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 military was withholding ammunition from Wagner for fear the mercenary leader would use it to storm Moscow and take power. 

Prigozhin responded by saying 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 Russian Defense Ministry in its spat with Prigozhin, appearing alongside Shoigu in a sign of support. The Russian Defense Ministry soon moved to take direct control of Wagner in what some experts said was a Kremlin attempt to sideline Prigozhin. 

Prigozhin went on the offensive, saying Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was justified based on “lies.” He was clear to avoid criticizing Putin for the poorly planned attack that has resulted in more than 200,000 Russian casualties. 

“The war was needed…so that Shoigu could become a marshal…so that he could get a second ‘Hero’ [of Russia] medal,” Prigozhin said. “The war wasn’t needed to demilitarize or ‘denazify’ Ukraine,” Prigozhin said, referring to Putin’s oft-stated reasons for launching the war against Kyiv. 

The Defense Ministry responded by saying that the statements “do not correspond to reality,” calling them a “provocation.”

Wagner’s march toward Moscow sent shivers through the Russian capital as police blocked roads leading to the city.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced he was putting “anti-terror measures” into effect, including increased traffic checks and restrictions on large events.

He called on residents to refrain from traveling around the city and declared Monday a non-working day. The events triggering a surge in demand for overseas flights departing Moscow on the weekend. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the events demonstrate “Russia’s weakness.”

“The longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain, and problems it will have for itself later,” Zelenskiy added in a Telegram message. 

Mykhaylo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, described Prigozhin’s actions as a “counterterrorist” operation that clearly exposed the simmering feud among Russia’s leadership.

“The split between the elites is too obvious. Agreeing and pretending that everything is settled won’t work,” Podolyak wrote in a tweet on June 24. “Someone must definitely lose: either Prigozhin…or the collective ‘anti-Prigozhin.'”

“Everything is just beginning in Russia,” Podolyak added.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *