By Tom Ozimek
The Belarusian president’s office has said that the leader of Wagner’s mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has agreed to stop the group’s ultra-fast advance towards Moscow and de-escalate the situation, and Prigozhin confirmed the news in a social media post.
Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, reportedly held talks with Prigozhin, according to Lukashenko’s press service.
The Belarusian president’s office added that Lukashenko’s talks with Prigozhin had Putin’s blessing and that a draft agreement was on the table that would provide security guarantees for Wagner’s fighters.
Russian state media TASS reported that a tentative deal was reached that would halt Wagner’s advance on Moscow, prompting Putin’s vow to crush any insurrection.
Prigozhin confirmed in a statement on his Telegram channel that he has ordered his mercenaries to stop their march on Moscow and retreat to their camps in Ukraine to avoid spilling Russian blood.
The Epoch Times has not been able to independently verify the accuracy of the claims that Prigozhin’s forces agreed to halt their advance on Moscow.
Earlier on Saturday, mutinous mercenaries from the Wagner Group approached Moscow after taking a southern city overnight, with the Russian army firing on them from the air and blocking roads, but apparently doing little to slow their rapid advance.
The rebel fighters are members of Wagner’s private army led by Prigozhin, a former close ally of Putin, who in a speech from the Kremlin vowed to crush the armed mutiny he likened to Russia’s Civil War a century ago.
Years ago, Putin tasked Prigozhin with setting up the Wagner Group as a private army with no formal ties to the government to give the Kremlin plausible deniability when using its resources on sensitive missions abroad.
While the exact details of the Wagner Group’s accomplishments are often hazy due to the secretive nature of their operations, they have been known to participate in conflicts and provide military support in countries such as Syria and, more recently, Ukraine.
But in the face of setbacks in the Ukraine, including Wagner suffering heavy casualties in the fierce battles for Bakhmut, Prigozhin seemed to have turned on his former foreman.
He said on his Telegram channel that his units were on a “march for justice” to remove corrupt and incompetent commanders whom he blames for bungling the war in Ukraine.
After capturing the city of Rostov overnight, Wagner’s mutineers set out on a 680-mile race to Moscow.
Wagner’s actions represent the first serious challenge to Putin’s grip on power during his 23-year rule.
Putin has called the armed rebellion a betrayal and vowed to punish its leaders.
Wagner-controlled troop carriers and a flatbed truck carrying a tank were observed by Reuters reporters as they sped through Voronezh, more than halfway to Moscow.
A helicopter apparently belonging to the Russian army took part in an attack on the vehicles, although there were no reports of significant resistance met by the rebels along the road.
There were unconfirmed reports that the Russian air force had bombed some bridges on the way to Moscow to hinder Wagner’s march to the capital.
Other unconfirmed reports suggested that Wagner’s troops had already reached Moscow Oblast and had been sighted near Barabanovo, which is south of the Oka River, which is said to be the main defensive line manned by Russian troops to prevent them from Moscow fall.
Russian media showed images of small groups of police stationed at machine gun positions on the southern outskirts of Moscow. The authorities of the Lipetsk region, located south of the capital, advised residents to stay at home.
In Voronezh, more than 100 firefighters were actively fighting a burning fuel depot. Reuters obtained video footage revealing a dramatic explosion that engulfed the depot in a huge ball of fire, shortly after a helicopter passed by.
“The Russian air force was ordered to fire on our column from civilian cars and trucks,” Prigozhin said, according to a translation of his remarks. He added that some pilots apparently refused to follow orders from higher command to fire on the Wagnerians, for which he expressed his gratitude.
The community-based geolocation platform GeoConfirmed, which has been tracking the movements of the Wagner Group, reported that its forces have divided into three main columns.
The first was securing gains in Rostov, the second appeared to be heading for an airfield, while the third was moving towards Moscow and was reported to have been seen around Voronezh.
Based on the rhythm of the movements of the third group, GeoConfirmed foretold they could reach the outskirts of Moscow on Saturday night.
‘Road of betrayal’
In a televised address from the Kremlin, Putin said that Russia’s very existence was threatened.
“We are fighting for the life and security of our people, for our sovereignty and independence, for the right to remain Russia, a state with a thousand-year history,” he said.
“All those who deliberately stepped on the path of treason, those who prepared an armed insurrection, those who took the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, they will answer both before the law and before our people.”
A defiant Prigozhin quickly replied that he and his men had no intention of turning themselves in.
“The president makes a profound mistake when he talks about treason. We are patriots of our homeland, we fight and fight for it,” Prigozhin said in an audio message. “We do not want the country to continue living in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”
Prigozhin, who for months feuded with Russia’s top military commanders as the Wagnerians suffered heavy casualties in bloody battles in Ukraine, said he had captured the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District in Rostov without firing a shot.
In Rostov, which serves as the main logistics hub for Russia’s invading forces, local residents calmly watched the scene, recording videos on their mobile phones as Wagner’s fighters, accompanied by armored vehicles and main battle tanks, took up position.
A tank was wedged between stucco buildings with signs advertising the circus. Another had “Siberia” painted in red paint on the front, in what appeared to be a statement of intent to spread across Russia.
In other parts of Moscow, there was a heightened security presence on the streets, with the iconic Red Square blocked off by metal barriers.
In a series of messages posted on his Telegram channel overnight, Prigozhin demanded that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov come to see him in Rostov for talks.
Wagner’s apparent insurrection risks throwing Russia’s invasion force into disarray in Ukraine, just as kyiv is launching its strongest counteroffensive since the start of the war.
Geopolitical expert Peter Zeihan said that while reports coming out of the region should be viewed with some skepticism due to “fog of war” misinformation being passed on to opponents on the wrong foot, the rebellion is an “opportunity gold” for Ukraine.
“As long as Rostov-on-Don is offline, it is impossible for Russian forces anywhere in Crimea or in occupied Ukraine to reinforce themselves, get more troops, equipment, fuel,” Zeihan said in a post on his YouTube. channel.
“So this is a more than golden opportunity for the Ukrainians to give the Russians a serious beating. The question is, how long will it last? she added.
While there have been many claims circulating online and carried out by the media, there are currently no signs of large-scale clashes between Wagner’s forces and the Russian military.
Prigozhin said on his Telegram channel that the Wagnerians were determined to advance on Moscow and force a reckoning.
“We are 25,000 and we are going to find out why the chaos is taking place in the country,” he said, vowing to destroy any checkpoint or air force that got in Wagner’s way.
He later claimed that his men had been involved in clashes with regular soldiers and had shot down a helicopter.
Western capitals have been closely monitoring the situation, with Britain’s Defense Ministry calling the apparent coup “the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times.”
“In the coming hours, the loyalty of Russia’s security forces, and especially the Russian National Guard, will be key to the development of this crisis,” he added.
It is unclear whether Wagner’s advance on Moscow has been abandoned and what Putin will do, given his remarks that Prigozhin’s advance on the capital amounted to treason.
Reuters contributed to this report.