US briefed on Wagner forces days before rebellion started
Yevgeny Prigozhin said his mercenary unit’s camps in Ukraine had been attacked by rival forces from the Russian military on Friday, leading to them taking over the strategic city of Rostov-on-Don and marching towards Moscow before a deal was agreed for them to withdraw.
But CNN and the New York Times are reporting that US intelligence briefings on Wagner building troops near the Russian border were taking place from earlier in the week.
Wagner troops have played a crucial role in the Ukraine war, capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut, but Mr Prigozhin has increasingly criticised the military top brass, accusing it of incompetence and of starving his troops of munitions.
The brief revolt, which saw Wagner Group soldiers move unimpeded for hundreds of miles towards Moscow, fizzled out after Mr Prigozhin reached a deal with the Kremlin to go into exile and sounded the retreat.
Under the deal announced on Saturday by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Mr Prigozhin will go to neighbouring Belarus, which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with charges against him of mounting an armed rebellion dropped.
The government also said it would not prosecute Wagner fighters who took part, while those who did not join in were to be offered contracts by the Defence Ministry.
Mr Prigozhin ordered his troops back to their field camps in Ukraine, where they have been fighting alongside Russian regular soldiers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had vowed to punish those behind the armed uprising led by his one-time protege, calling the rebellion a “betrayal” and “treason” during a televised address.
In allowing Mr Prigozhin and his forces to go free, Mr Peskov said Mr Putin’s “highest goal” was “to avoid bloodshed and internal confrontation with unpredictable results”.
Some observers said the Russian leader’s strong man image had taken a hit with former US ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst telling CNN: “Putin has been diminished for all time by this affair.”
Moscow had braced for the arrival of the Wagner forces by erecting checkpoints with armoured vehicles and troops on the city’s southern edge.
About 3,000 Chechen soldiers were pulled from fighting in Ukraine and rushed there early on Saturday, state television in Chechnya reported.
Russian troops armed with machine guns put up checkpoints on Moscow’s southern outskirts. Crews dug up sections of highways to slow the march.
Wagner troops advanced to just 200 kilometres (120 miles) from Moscow, according to Mr Prigozhin. But after the deal was struck, he announced that he had decided to retreat to avoid “shedding Russian blood”.
Ukrainians hoped the Russian infighting would create opportunities for their army to take back territory seized by Russian forces.
“These events will have been of great comfort to the Ukrainian government and the military,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He said that even with a deal, Mr Putin’s position has probably been weakened.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late on Saturday, shortly before Mr Prigozhin announced his retreat, that the march exposed weakness in the Kremlin and “showed all Russian bandits, mercenaries, oligarchs” that it is easy to capture Russian cities “and, probably, arsenals”.