Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday raised the specter of civil war after embittered warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin seized control of key parts of the south of the country.
Prigozhin, who has long lambasted Russia’s top brass for their handling of the war in Ukraine, has seized the large strategic city of Rostov-on-Don, a crucial command center for the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, some 1,000 kilometers south of Moscow.
His Wagner Group mercenary forces also appear to have a foothold around Voronezh, about 500 kilometers from the capital.
Putin has condemned the insurrection as “treason” and Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov has said his fighters have already been dispatched to take the battle to Wagner — raising the prospect of imminent civil conflict inside Russia.
Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group military outfit, has announced his forces will turn around just as they were poised to encircle Moscow.
In a voice recording posted to his Telegram channel, Prigozhin said that his forces had advanced to within 200 kilometers of the Russian capital in a single day.
“During this time we did not spill a single drop of blood of our fighters. Now the moment has come when blood could flow,” he said.
“Therefore, understanding all responsibility for the fact that Russian blood will be shed on one side, we will turn our columns around and go in the opposite direction to our field camps, in accordance with our plan.”
Wagner’s rebellious mercenary leader will move to Belarus under the terms of a truce agreed with President Putin, the Kremlin said on Saturday night.
Prigozhin will relocate to Belarus under a deal brokered by Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s president, to end an armed mutiny that Prigozhin had led against Russia’s military leadership.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Lukashenko had offered to mediate, with Putin’s agreement, because he had known Prigozhin personally for about 20 years. Minsk has been a key ally for Putin in his war with Ukraine.
As part of the deal, the criminal charges against Prigozhin for leading the “armed coup” will be dropped.
Wagner troops that took part in the rebellion would similarly be spared from prosecution, Mr Peskov said.
Earlier on Saturday, Prigozhin ordered his fighters to halt their march on Moscow and return to their bases in a surprise turnaround.