(CNN) — Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the paramilitary group Wagner, has agreed to leave Russia for Belarus, the Kremlin reported on Saturday, in a deal apparently brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which ends an armed insurgency that was the largest serious threat to the authority of Russian President Vladimir Putin for decades.
In a conference call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said an agreement had been reached with Prigozhin.
“They will ask me what will happen to Prigozhin personally,” Peskov said. “The criminal case against him will be closed. He himself will go to Belarus.” Peskov added that the Kremlin does not know the mercenary’s current whereabouts.
Wagner’s leader had earlier ordered his troops to return “to our field camps, according to plan.” Peskov said those troops would face no “legal action” for marching on Moscow, and that Wagner’s fighters would sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry.
The announcement defuses a crisis that began when Wagner’s troops took control of a key military installation in the southern Russian city of Rostov and some fighters advanced on the capital.
Prigozhin publicly criticized Russian military leaders and their handling of the war in Ukraine, with little consequence. But over the weekend he crossed many red lines with Putin.
A grim-looking Russian president addressed the nation, calling Wagner’s actions “a stab in the back of our country and our people.”
The president called the events an insurrection, which he vowed to defeat, and Moscow began to tighten its security measures.
But on Saturday night, Prigozhin’s calculation appears to have changed, with the mercenary saying his troops, who were 200 kilometers from Moscow, were halting their advance to avoid bloodshed.
The videos, authenticated and geotagged by CNN, also showed Prigozhin and Wagner’s forces retreating from their positions at Russian military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don.
In the video, Prigozhin is seen sitting in the back seat of a vehicle. The crowd cheers and the vehicle comes to a halt as an individual approaches and shakes Prigozhin’s hand.
The dramatic events of this Saturday stem from Prigozhin’s very public, months-long feud with Russian military leaders. He has previously accused Shoigu and Gerasimov of failing to give their forces ammunition and criticized their handling of the conflict, but has always defended the reasoning for war.
The escalation came after Prigozhin accused Russian forces of attacking a Wagner military camp and killing “a large number” of his fighters, a claim the Russian Defense Ministry denied, calling it a “provocation informative”.
The private warlord apparently built influence on Putin during the conflict, with his Wagnerian forces playing a leading role in the painstaking but ultimately successful attack on Bakhmut earlier this year. Capturing this town was a rare Russian gain in Ukraine in recent months, further raising Prigozhin’s profile.
But it seems that Prigozhin has now turned not only against the military leadership’s handling of the invasion of Ukraine, but also against the Russian leader and his strategy.
On Friday, he said Moscow had invaded Ukraine under false pretenses concocted by the Russian Defense Ministry and that Russia was losing ground on the battlefield.
“When they told us we were at war with Ukraine, we went to fight. But it turned out that ammunition, weapons, all the money that was allocated are also stolen, and the bureaucrats are sitting [de brazos cruzados]keeping it to themselves, just for the occasion that happened today, when someone [está] marching towards Moscow,” Prigozhin said in Telegram messages on Saturday.
“There are 25,000 of us and we are going to find out why there is so much chaos in the country. We are 25,000 waiting as a tactical reserve and a strategic reserve. It’s the whole army and the whole country, everyone who wants to join us. We must put an end to this debacle,” he said.
Putin gathers supporters
Meanwhile, many senior Russian officials soon joined Putin’s side. Russian intelligence officer Lieutenant General Vladimir Alekseev released a video of Prigozhin’s actions that day, describing it as an attempted coup.
“Only the president has the right to appoint the top leadership of the armed forces, and you are trying to usurp his authority. This is a coup. There is no need to do it now, because the image of Russia and its armed forces is no longer damaged,” he added.
Sergei Naryshkin, who heads Russia’s foreign intelligence service, described the events as an “attempt at armed rebellion”.
In a statement shared by the president of the Russian Historical Society on Telegram, Naryshkin claimed the rebellion was an unforgivable crime “which cannot be justified by any previous achievements”.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, another key player in the war, referred to an “infamous betrayal” by Prigozhin on Telegram. “The rebellion must be crushed, and if that requires harsh measures, then we are ready! he said.
A senior Russian-appointed official in occupied Ukraine, Vladimir Rogov, said on Telegram that Chechen special forces detachments had been seen in Rostov. Rogov said the troops were “transferred to suppress the rebellion”. However, CNN was unable to independently confirm that the Chechen units reached Rostov.
Russia’s security service (FSB) also reacted on Friday, urging Wagner’s fighters to arrest their leader and open a criminal investigation against the militia leader accusing him of “calling for armed rebellion”.
“Most Important Challenge”
When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stalled earlier this year, senior US officials said they saw signs of tension between the Kremlin and Prigozhin. Officials said the United States determined as early as January that there was an ongoing internal power struggle and has been gathering and closely monitoring intelligence on the volatile dynamics ever since.
But U.S. and Western officials are careful not to interfere in the events because Putin could weaponize any perceived outside involvement in the escalating crisis, sources familiar with the administration’s thinking told CNN.
The Russian Foreign Ministry warned Western countries not to use the Prigozhin rebellion “to achieve Russophobic goals”.
The European Union, which borders Russia, has activated its crisis response center to coordinate member countries in response to events in Russia.
The foreign ministers of the G7 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – discussed the situation in a phone call on Saturday, according to a brief statement from the State Department. American. A senior EU diplomat also participated in the call, the statement said.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence update that the Prigozhin uprising “represents the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times.”
The report said some Russian forces “probably remained passive, accepting Wagner.”
And he predicted that individual decisions to support or betray Putin could tip the balance of the confrontation. “In the coming hours, the loyalty of the Russian security forces, and in particular the Russian National Guard, will be key to the unfolding of the crisis,” the report said.
Ukraine responded by calling for more support for its attempts to defend itself in the war. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter that it is “time to abandon the false neutrality and the fear of escalation; give Ukraine all the necessary weapons; forget friendship or business with Russia. It’s time to put an end to the evil that everyone despised but was too afraid to bring down.”
A spokesman for the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine told CNN the country will benefit from events in Russia. “The fact that Prigozhin brought all his Wagner fighters to Russia will now definitely have an effect on our front line,” Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesman for the Eastern Grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, told CNN by phone.
CNN’s Simone McCarthy, Mick Krever, Anna Chernova and Tim Lister, Tara John, Mariya Knight, Josh Pennington, Uliana Pavlova, Lauren Kent, Katharina Krebs, Sharon Braithwaite, Chris Stern, Lindsay Isaac, Inke Kappelle, Natasha Bertrand and Yulia Kesaieva have contributed with this report.