(CNN) — Within a day and a half, Russia faced the real threat of an armed insurgency, with President Vladimir Putin pledging to punish Wagner Group fighters marching on Moscow, occupying towns along the way; before a sudden agreement with Belarus seemed to defuse the crisis as quickly as it appeared.
But much remains to be done, and experts warn the unusual uprising is unlikely to die down so quickly without consequences.
After a series of dizzying events watched closely – and nervously – around the world and cheered on by Ukraine, Putin now faces the consequences of the most serious challenge to his authority since he came to power in 2000.
Wagner’s eloquent boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was sent to Belarus seemingly unscathed but he may have hit a target in the back like never before.
That’s what we know.
What are the latest news ?
Prigozhin, the pompous leader of the Wagner Group, agreed on Saturday to leave Russia for neighboring Belarus, in a deal apparently brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The deal includes the withdrawal of Prigozhin troops from their march on the capital, a Kremlin spokesman said on Saturday.
Criminal charges against him will be dropped, the spokesperson said. Wagner’s fighters will face no legal action for their role in the insurgency, instead signing contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry, a move Prigozhin previously dismissed as an attempt to align his paramilitary force .
Wagner’s troops have previously claimed they seized key military installations in two Russian cities; This Saturday, videos authenticated and geotagged by CNN showed Prigozhin and his forces withdrawing from one such town, Rostov-on-Don.
It is not known where Prigozhin is now. The Kremlin’s whereabouts are unknown, the spokesman said on Saturday.
How did it happen?
The crisis in Russia erupted on Friday, when Prigozhin accused the Russian military of attacking a Wagner camp and killing his men, vowing to retaliate with force.
Prigozhin then led his troops to Rostov-on-Don and claimed to have taken control of key military installations in the Voronezh region, where an apparent clash between Wagner’s units and Russian forces took place.
Prigozhin claimed it was not a coup, but a “march of justice”. But that did little to appease Moscow, with a senior security official calling Prigozhin’s actions an “organized coup”, according to Russian state media.
The Russian Defense Ministry denied attacking Wagner’s troops, and the Russian Internal Security Forces opened a criminal case against Prigozhin.
Then came a remarkable national speech from Putin.
In a speech broadcast across Russia on Saturday morning local time, a visibly furious Putin vowed to punish those “on the path to betrayal”.
Wagner’s “betrayal” was a “stab in the back for our country and our people”, he said, comparing the group’s actions to the 1917 Russian Revolution which overthrew Tsar Nicholas II in middle of the First World War.
The situation was tense on the ground and in Voronezh civilians were asked to stay at home. Meanwhile, Moscow has stepped up security measures across the capital, declaring Monday a day off. Photos show Russian forces with body armor and automatic weapons near a highway outside Moscow.
All indications pointed to an imminent armed confrontation in the capital, as rumors and uncertainty swirled.
But almost as suddenly as it began, the brief mutiny died down and the Belarus deal seemed to put out the fire, at least for now.
What is the future of Prigojine and Wagner?
Much remains unclear, such as what will become of Prigozhin’s role within Wagner and the Ukrainian war, and whether all of his fighters will be hired by the Russian military.
The Kremlin spokesman said Saturday he “cannot answer” what position Prigozhin will take in Belarus. Prigozhin himself gave few details of his agreement to halt the advance on Moscow.
The Wagner Group is “an independent combat company” with different terms than the Russian military, retired U.S. Army Major Mike Lyons said on Saturday. For example, Wagner’s fighters are better fed than the military, meaning full assimilation would be difficult.
“Maybe some will come off,” he added. “These people are loyal to the man, Prigozhin, not to the country, not to the mission. I think we have a lot more unanswered questions right now.”
The danger is not ruled out for the boss of Wagner either, according to experts.
“Putin does not forgive traitors. Even if Putin says, ‘Prigozhin, go to Belarus,’ he is still a traitor and I think Putin will never forgive him,” said Jill Dougherty, former CNN Moscow bureau chief and expert in Russian affairs. for a long time.
We can see Prigozhin ‘getting killed in Belarus’, he added, but it’s a tough dilemma for Moscow because as long as Prigozhin ‘has some kind of support, he’s a threat wherever he is’. .
What does this mean for Putin?
Putin also faces real problems.
Several experts told CNN that although the Russian president survived the confrontation, he now appears weak, not only to the world and its enemies, but also to his own people and his military. This could pose a risk if there are skeptics or rivals in Moscow who see an opportunity to undermine Putin’s position.
“If I were Putin, I would be worried that these people on the streets of Rostov were cheering on the Wagners,” Dougherty said.
A video, geotagged and verified by CNN, showed the cheering crowd as Prigozhin’s vehicle left Rostov-on-Don. The vehicle stopped when a person approached and shook hands with Prigozhin.
“Why are ordinary Russians cheering in the streets for people who just tried to make a coup?” Dougherty said. “That means they might support them or like them. Either way, it’s very bad news for Putin.”
Who is Prigozhin? Why did you do this?
Prigozhin has known Putin since the 1990s and was dubbed “Putin’s boss” after landing lucrative catering contracts with the Kremlin. But the Russian-backed separatist movements in Ukraine in 2014 laid the groundwork for Prigozhin’s transformation into a warlord.
Prigozhin founded Wagner as an organization of shadowy mercenaries fighting in eastern Ukraine and, increasingly, for Russian-backed causes around the world.
Wagner came to the fore during the Ukrainian War as his fighters seemed to have made tangible gains where regular Russian troops had failed. However, their brutal tactics are said to have caused a large number of casualties.
As the war dragged on, Prigozhin and Russia’s military leadership became embroiled in a public row, with Wagner’s boss accusing the military of failing to supply his forces with ammunition and lamenting the lack of field success of the battle by regular military units.
He has repeatedly criticized his handling of the conflict, presenting himself as ruthless and competent in comparison.
Prigozhin was always careful to blame Russian military leaders, not Putin, and had defended the justification for war in Ukraine.
Until Friday when the uprising broke out.
In a notable statement, Prigozhin said that Moscow invaded Ukraine under false pretenses concocted by the Russian Defense Ministry and that Russia was actually losing ground on the battlefield.
Steve Hall, former head of CIA operations in Russia, said even the most seasoned Russian observers were taken aback by recent events.
“Everyone is scratching their heads,” he told CNN. “The only feeling I can take from a day like today is that you have two guys who got into untenable situations and had to find their way.”
Hall said Prigozhin may have felt like he bit off more than he could chew as his column of troops marched on Moscow. But at the same time, Putin faced the very real prospect of having to defeat some 25,000 Wagnerian mercenaries.
Sending Prigozhin to Belarus was a face-saving measure for both sides.
But Hall said Putin was ultimately worse off and weaker.
“Putin should have seen this happen literally months ago. We’ll see how it ends. I don’t think the story is over yet,” Hall said.