The armed uprising of Russian mercenaries against their own state leadership was short-lived. After the escalation on Friday evening, Wagner fighters invaded Russia from Ukraine with the aim of overthrowing the military leadership in Moscow. In the city of Rostov-on-Don, the mercenaries captured the army headquarters for southern Russia. During the course of Saturday, the mercenaries advanced as far as the Lipetsk region, around 400 kilometers south of Moscow.

A few hours after the start of the advance towards Moscow, mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin gave the order for his notorious private army to withdraw on Saturday evening. Shortly thereafter, the mercenaries gave up the positions they had held in southern Russia. Prigozhin himself will go unhindered to neighboring Belarus, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Saturday, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. As a guarantee for the free withdrawal, the former confidant of Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin has “the word of the president”.

Although Putin had announced that the insurgents would be punished that morning, the Kremlin made different statements in the evening. 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 media reports, the fact that Prigozhin would instigate an uprising did not come as a surprise to the US secret services. They are said to have had indications of any plans by the Wagner boss in advance. The Washington Post and the New York Times reported on Saturday evening (local time) that intelligence officials informed representatives of the White House, the Department of Defense and Congress about the possibility of unrest in Russia the day before the uprising began.

According to the Washington Post, the intelligence services had the first indications of planned action by Prigozchin and his mercenary group Wagner against the military leadership by the middle of the month. In the middle of the week, the clues became so thick that there were a series of secret service briefings in Washington, according to the New York Times. According to the Washington Post, US intelligence officials assume that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself was informed of the planned rebellion at least a day before the uprising began.

On Saturday evening, Prigozhin surprisingly made a U-turn and announced the return of his mercenaries to their camps. “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 shed. “Now is the moment when blood could be shed.” That’s why it’s time to turn the columns around.

According to the Kremlin, in return for ending their uprising, Prigozhin and his fighters will not be prosecuted and Prigozhin is to leave for Belarus. This would “avoid a bloodbath”.

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 loyal companion 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.

According to his own statements, the Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko wants to have persuaded Prigozhin to end his uprising. Lukashenko offered to be a mediator because he had known Prigozhin personally for around 20 years, said Kremlin spokesman Peskov. Prigozhin himself did not comment directly on this. It was not clear whether and when he wanted to leave southern Russia for Belarus.

The Wagner troops now gave up their positions in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, which they had held until early Sunday morning (local time). 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 occupied only hours earlier – before 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. However, the city administration continued to adhere to the work-free Monday originally decreed by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin for security reasons.

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 Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and most notably played 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. Prigozhin repeatedly snubbed the army leadership with public criticism and malice – an unprecedented occurrence in Putin’s Russia, where voices critical of the government are systematically silenced. Nevertheless, Putin let him do it for a long time.

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. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was also not aware of any change in the president’s attitude towards Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Prigozhin accused the minister and Chief of Staff Valeri Gerasimov of incompetence and blamed them for the many setbacks on the battlefield.

From Ukraine, Russian military reported heavy fighting in the Kupyansk region in the east of the country. Russian artillery repeatedly prevented troop movements in Ukraine on Saturday, it was said, while attack helicopters fired rockets inflicted losses on the Ukrainian units. The information could not be independently verified.

Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is shortening her trip to South Africa, which was originally planned to last two days, because of the power struggle in Russia. The minister had “postponed her planned departure for South Africa by one day in order to attend a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday morning in view of the latest developments in Russia,” said a spokesman for the Federal Foreign Office late Saturday evening in Berlin. Baerbock now wants to leave for South Africa on Monday afternoon.

Is the Wagner boss already in Belarus, will he travel to Minsk later – or will Progoschin resist being banished into exile? Details about the reasons that led to the rapid de-escalation of the mercenary uprising are also expected on Sunday.