The armed uprising by Russian mercenaries against the leadership of President Vladimir Putin appears to have ended shortly after an unexpected escalation. On the orders of mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, the members of his notorious private army Wagner gave up their positions in southern Russia by late Saturday evening and returned to their camps.

According to the Kremlin, the criminal case against Prigozhin, which was initiated because of an armed uprising against the military leadership, will be dropped. Prigozhin himself will go to Belarus unhindered, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. He has “the word of the President” as a guarantee for the free withdrawal.

The fighters of the Wagner troops should not be prosecuted in view of their services at the front in Ukraine, as Peskov assured. Rather, some of the mercenaries are being offered a contract to serve in the Russian armed forces. According to his own statements, the Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko had persuaded Prigozhin to give up his uprising. Lukashenko offered to be a mediator because he had known Prigozhin personally for around 20 years, Peskov said. Prigozhin himself did not comment directly on this.

Many things initially unclear

Shortly before, the mercenary chief had announced that he would stop his units from advancing on the Russian capital Moscow. “Our columns are turning and heading back to the camps in the opposite direction,” he said in a voice message published by his press service on Telegram. So far, “not a drop of our fighters’ blood” has been spilled, said Prigozhin. “Now is the moment when blood could be shed.” That’s why it’s time to turn the columns around.

At first it was not clear whether, in addition to impunity, other concessions were being made or at least promised to Prigozhin in order to stop his troops from advancing on Moscow. He was long considered a confidante of Putin, an untouchable figure in the Russian power structure, until the Kremlin chief called him a “traitor” on Saturday morning – and thus publicly dropped him. It is also questionable what will become of the foreign missions of the Wagner army in the future, which represented Russian interests with armed force to the end, especially in Africa.

Wagner troops leave southern city of Rostov-on-Don

The Wagner troops gave up their positions in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, which they had held until early Sunday morning. To the applause of the civilian population, the first vehicles with mercenaries first left the headquarters of the Russian Military Command South – which they had only occupied hours earlier – before the tanks and combat vehicles later also left the city centre. According to official information, all roadblocks on the access roads around Moscow were lifted early Sunday morning.

The power struggle between Prigozhin and the Russian army leadership, which had been smoldering for months, escalated on Saturday night. The 62-year-old accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of ordering an attack on a Wagner troop military camp, thereby risking the deaths of a “large number” of fighters. The notorious mercenary unit fought alongside regular Russian troops in Moscow’s war of aggression against Ukraine, most notably playing an important role in the capture of the town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region. However, there has been a dispute over competencies and ammunition supplies for months.

Fighting in Ukraine continues

After the alleged attack on the Wagner camp, which the Ministry of Defense in Moscow immediately denied, Prigozhin announced a “march of justice” to punish those responsible. On Saturday, his troops first occupied military facilities in Rostov-on-Don. It later became known that other units had marched towards Moscow. According to Prigozhin, the heads of his units were recently only around 200 kilometers from the Russian capital.

According to the Russian leadership, the progress of the war against Ukraine has not been influenced by the Prigozhin uprising. The situation has no effect on the course of the “special military operation” – as the Kremlin calls the war of aggression, said Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. He is also not aware that the President’s attitude towards Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has changed. Prigozhin had accused the minister and chief of staff Valeri Gerasimov of incompetence and blamed the two for the many setbacks and high losses in the war.