Live Updates: The Wagner Group says it will halt its advance on Moscow

Published June 24, 2023 at 9:25 AM EDT

Editor's note: This live blog is no longer being updated. Follow the latest on NPR.org.

The head of the Wagner Group said his mercenary forces were ending a march on the Russian capital after demanding the resignation of the country’s top defense officials over alleged failures in the war in Ukraine. Here's what we're following:

  • The Kremlin said Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin will not be charged for his role in the aborted mutiny and will instead "go to Belarus."
  • U.S. and foreign leaders were monitoring the rapidly unfolding situation in Russia.
  • Russian authorities will not prosecute those Wagner troops who took part in the uprising, the Kremlin said.
Members of Wagner Group inspect a car in Rostov-on-Don, on Saturday.
Stringer/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
Members of Wagner Group inspect a car in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on Saturday.

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia calls aborted Moscow march Putin's ‘weakest moment’

Posted June 24, 2023 at 7:11 PM EDT

Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, believes the Wagner Group forces’ aborted march on Moscow represents Putin’s “weakest moment” as Russia’s president.

McFaul, who served as ambassador from 2012 to 2014, spoke withAll Things Considered about how he views Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s short-lived advancement on the capital city — and its potential fallout.

Key highlights from McFaul’s interview:

Prigozhin nearly led forces to Moscow "without a fight"
I'm surprised that they marched out to a couple hundred kilometers outside of Moscow with no fighting. Usually when there's mutinies or coups, there's been fighting -- and now I'm surprised [Prigozhin is] going to Belarus. I would not have expected that he would go there.

"Extremely unusual for Putin" to let Wagner boss off without charges
Vladimir Putin is not somebody who calls somebody a traitor and a few hours later says everything's fine. Not only did he call him a traitor, he went on national television and told the entire country he was a traitor. And hours later, he allowed his partner, Mr. Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, to cut a deal to let him go free with no charges. … Think about the paradox here, Mr. Kara-Murza, who was just sentenced for 25 years in jail for mildly criticizing the war.

Prigozhin likely remains a threat to Putin
I will be surprised if [Prigozhin] just goes to Belarus and retires for the rest of his time. He has become a populist figure. His soldiers were cheered as they left Rostov. And I just cannot imagine that he just fades away. I think he presents a real problem for Putin for the future.

"The weakest moment" of Putin’s presidency
It's the weakest moment of his presidency. It's the strongest threat to him and it undercuts the image of Putin … the powerful Putin supported by everyone. He's not supported by everyone inside Russia.

View from China

Chinese social media users are comparing Wagner's mutiny to an 8th century rebellion

Posted June 24, 2023 at 6:43 PM EDT

On Chinese social media, Chinese netizens are hotly debating the mercenary outfit Wagner Group’s attempted mutiny in Russia, which has captivated the internet despite scant official media mention.

The hashtag “treason” in Russia is trending on China’s Twitter-like site Weibo.

Chinese internet users are comparing the Wagner Group’s armed march on Moscow to China’s own An Lushan rebellion in the 8th century. An, a powerful warlord, turned against the ruling Tang dynasty. He took control of a major city in one of the bloodiest rebellions in Chinese history and declared a rival dynasty but was murdered less than two years later by his own son.

Moscow will drop criminal case against Wagner chief Prigozhin, Kremlin says

Posted June 24, 2023 at 4:26 PM EDT

The Kremlin said it will drop its criminal case against Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.

According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Prigozhin will not be charged for his role in the aborted march to Moscow and will instead “go to Belarus.” It’s not clear what Prigozhin will do in Belarus.

The Kremlin formally charged Prigozhin with "inciting an armed revolt" early Saturday.

Peskov also said that Russian authorities will not prosecute Wagner troops who took part in the uprising.

The Wagner troops who didn’t take part in the uprising will sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense, the spokesman said.

Just In

Wagner Group ending march on Moscow, its leader says

Posted June 24, 2023 at 2:01 PM EDT

The head of the Wagner mercenary group said his forces were ending a march on the Russian capital Moscow that included demands for the resignation of the country’s top defense officials over alleged failures in the war in Ukraine.

In a statement to his Telegram social media account, Yevgeny Prigozhin said his fighters had led a “march for justice” over the past 24 hours that saw them travel from the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don to the outskirts of the Russian capital.

“The whole time, not one drop of blood of our fighters was spilled,” Prigozhin said. “But now the moment has arrived when blood could be spilt.”

To avoid such a scenario, Prigozhin had ordered his forces to “turn our columns around and go in the opposite direction back to a field camp as planned.”

Just In
U.S.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley cancels Middle East trip to monitor situation in Russia

Posted June 24, 2023 at 1:57 PM EDT

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has cancelled his planned trip to Israel "due to the situation in Russia," Col. Dave Butler, a a Joint Staff spokesperson, told NPR.

Milley was scheduled to meet with top Israeli officials on Sunday to discuss Iran, according to The Times of Israel.

The top-ranking officer has been involved in forming a joint military plan between the U.S. and Israel concerning Iran's nuclear program. In March, Milley warned Congress that Iran was dangerously close to producing an atomic weapon.

Milley has also cancelled his trip to Jordan, where he was supposed to visit after Israel, NBC News reported.

NPR's Tom Bowman contributed reporting.

A counter-terrorism operation has been declared in Moscow, mayor says

Posted June 24, 2023 at 1:51 PM EDT

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin confirmed that a “counter-terrorism operation regime” has been declared in the city, as a convoy of Wagner Group fighters pushed toward the capital.

“The situation is difficult,” Sobyanin said.

To “minimize risks,” he added, Monday will be a non-working day for Moscow’s estimated 12 million residents. He urged civilians to refrain from traveling around the city. Certain roads and neighborhoods might be blocked, he said.

The mayor added that the city is on high alert and that essential city services and round-the-clock factories connected to Russia's military industrial complex were exempt from the holiday. Moscow has also cancelled all mass outdoor events through July 1.

The Wagner forces remain several hours from the city limits.

Earlier Saturday, President Vladimir Putin said that counterterrorism measures were currently in effect in Moscow, the Moscow region and several other regions.

Wagner Group convoy moving closer to Moscow

Posted June 24, 2023 at 1:28 PM EDT

A convoy of Russian mercenaries continues to barrel along a southern highway ever closer to Moscow. The march on the Russian capital comes amid their demands for the resignation of Russia’s top brass over alleged failures in Ukraine.

Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin says his mercenaries took control of the key southern city of Rostov-on-Don and its main Russian army base without a single shot fired.

Yet online videos that could not be independently verified appeared to show Russian military helicopters and Wagner formations attacking one another in scattered fighting in and around the city.

Meanwhile, authorities have set up roadblocks and positioned armored personnel carriers along a main highway in an effort to halt a Wagner convoy’s advance on the capital.

International Dispatch

European leaders warily watch the Russian crisis

Posted June 24, 2023 at 1:17 PM EDT

An increasingly unstable security situation in Russia has prompted U.S. allies throughout Europe to prepare for the worst as the region attempts to get a clear picture of what’s happening inside their neighbor to the east.

A spokesperson for Germany’s foreign ministry said Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has discussed developments with her counterparts in the G-7, and said that the German government’s crisis team was also meeting on Saturday.

A NATO spokesperson said the alliance is closely monitoring the situation, and several European countries bordering both Russia and Belarus have said via social media that they’ve put defense forces on high alert.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas of Estonia, which shares a 183-mile border with Russia, assured her people the situation inside Russia was not a direct threat to her country but that her government has strengthened border security. She warned Estonian citizens not to attempt to travel to any parts of Russia at this time.

Polish President Andrzej Duda posted on Twitter that his government held meetings Saturday morning, adding, “The course of events beyond our eastern border is monitored on an ongoing basis.”

Context
Profile

How Prigozhin went from being 'Putin's Chef' to his fiercest threat

Posted June 24, 2023 at 1:01 PM EDT
This picture taken on July 4, 2017 shows Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin prior to a meeting with business leaders held by Russian and Chinese presidents at the Kremlin in Moscow.
Sergei Ilnitsky
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AFP via Getty Images
This picture taken on July 4, 2017 shows Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin prior to a meeting with business leaders held by Russian and Chinese presidents at the Kremlin in Moscow.

A decade ago, Yevgeny Prigozhin was known as "Putin's Chef" — a nickname he earned after building a restaurant and catering empire favored by the Kremlin.

At the same time, Prigozhin was quietly recruiting Russians to fight alongside separatists in the Donbas region — part of a Kremlin off-the-books effort to hide Russian meddling in the then-nascent proxy war in eastern Ukraine.

His army was filled with imprisoned Russian convicts who joined in exchange for full amnesty. Prigozhin himself was reportedly an ex-con.

He dubbed his soldiers as "Wagner ranks" in homage to the 19th-century German composer, Richard Wagner. The group grew into a force of some 50,000 men. Today, the mercenary is critical in supporting Russia's struggling military campaign.

Until recently, Prigozhin and his group worked in the shadows of the Kremlin, but then they became openly central to Russia's war effort in Ukraine. In recent months, Prigozhin himself has appeared to be increasingly embracing the spotlight and vying for political influence.

On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned an uprising by Prigozhin and his Wagner Group against the Defense Ministry as a "stab in the back."

Just In
Lipetsk region

Lipetsk crews damage roads to prevent Wagner vehicles from passing through

Posted June 24, 2023 at 12:26 PM EDT

Russia's Lipetsk province is blocking traffic on multiple regional roads to prevent Wagner forces from traveling on the highways.

Lipetsk Governor Igor Artamonov said he has employed excavators to intentionally damage multiple roadways.

"Radical measures have been taken to completely stop the passage of vehicles on the highways," Artamonov wrote on Telegram in a message translated by NPR.

"We understand the inconvenience this causes to the residents of the region, but safety is paramount," he added.

Artamonov said roads will be restored once the situation de-escalates. The region of Lipetsk is only a few hours south of Moscow.

International Dispatch
Europe

Europeans watch the chaos in Russia with fascination and concern

Posted June 24, 2023 at 12:23 PM EDT

The sudden and fast-moving events in Russia have Europeans glued to their television sets and social media.

French news channels held special coverage of President Vladimir Putin's early-morning address to Russian citizens, as well as footage of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin's insurrection against the Russian army.

The Elysee Palace said French President Emmanuel Macron is closely watching and monitoring events. 

In Britain, the country's defense intelligence agency described the rebellion in Russia as the “most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times.”

Meanwhile, the European Union has activated a crisis response team, according to Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell.

"Our support to Ukraine continues unabated," Borrell wrote on Twitter.

European governments have given billions in military aid to Kyiv, imposed successive rounds of sanctions on Moscow and took in millions of Ukrainian refugees. 

The upheaval in Russia could help the Ukrainian counteroffensive, but could also create even more instability.

Analysis

The mutiny in Russia spells trouble for Putin, regardless of who wins, analysts say

Posted June 24, 2023 at 12:12 PM EDT
Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government, via a video conference at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 21, 2023.
Gavril Grigorov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government, via a video conference at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 21, 2023.

An apparent mutiny led by the leader of Russia’s Wagner Group of mercenaries against the Kremlin’s forces poses the most serious threat in decades to President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power and could severely hobble his ability to effectively prosecute the war against Ukraine, analysts say.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the shadowy private army that has played an outsized role in the fighting in Ukraine, claimed on Saturday to be in control of Russia’s military headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don, a key installation the Kremlin has used to direct its offensive operations against Ukraine.

In a series of remarkable posts on social media, Prigozhin had earlier accused Russia’s military leadership of attacking and killing his soldiers. He vowed to have Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu removed by force.

“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin declared, calling on Russian military units to join him.

Dmitri Alperovitch, of the Silverado Policy Accelerator think tank, said that Prigozhin’s move “seems like this is very well-planned and so-far comfortably executed operation.”

Putin, in a speech Saturday morning, did not mention Prigozhin by name, but referred to the insurrection as “treason.”

“Those who organized this military uprising, who raised arms against their fellow military comrades, will answer for it,” he said.

The visibly agitated Putin acknowledged that Rostov had “essentially been blocked” and that the situation there was “difficult.”

“They're making a blitzkrieg to Moscow, hoping to catch most of the Russian military, and internal defense troops unawares,” Alperovitch said, adding that Prigozhin has “accomplished remarkable achievements in the last 12 hours.”

Asked whether the Wagner chief’s military advances inside Russia represent a real threat to Putin’s rule, Alperovitch said, “It can't be ruled out at this point.”

“Wagner is getting very close to Moscow," Alperovitch said. "Russian defenses are very disorganized. They don't appear to have many forces near the capital. And Wagner is extremely well armed with, ironically, the Russian military’s own weapons. So, this is a situation that's really hard to predict right now.”

In a tweet as first reports of events were coming in, Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov called the situation “huge,” but “not a coup d'état.”

“Prigozhin's proclaimed objective is to march to Rostov, not Moscow, and all to get rid of Shoigu,” Soldatov, who is a senior fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis, said. “His call to the army to join in doesn't sound well articulated. It could mean delusional Prigozhin may still think he can get away with it.”

Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, agrees that the Wagner uprising is “a mutiny with an ambition to be a coup d’etat.”

“I think the next 48 hours will be really unpredictable and really important for what comes next,” he told NPR. “We are in this wild territory of unpredictability. There are so many moving elements.”

Even if Putin manages to put down the uprising, the Russian leader will undoubtedly be weakened by the severe challenge to his authority. Gabuev says.

“He will try to compensate by making the regime even more hands on,” he says. “The regime will become increasingly more repressive at home.”

Meanwhile, it’s good news for Ukraine, whose president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy said of the mutiny that “'Russia's weakness is obvious.”

The Wagner uprising will “definitely affect morale of the Russian troops on the front lines,” Gabuev says. “If that's suppressed quickly, we don't know whether that will lead to a real crumbling of the morale.”

International Dispatch
Ukraine

Ukraine closely monitors the internal crisis in Russia

Posted June 24, 2023 at 11:37 AM EDT
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia's internal conflict showed the country's weakness.
Alexey Furman
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Getty Images Europe
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia's internal conflict showed the country's weakness.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia's internal crisis is a direct result of the war it's waging in his country.

"Russia's weakness is obvious. A full-scale weakness," Zelenskyy on Telegram. "The longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain and problems it will create for itself."

Ukraine is closely monitoring developments in Russia to see how it might affect the war between the two countries.

It's not clear how the turmoil in Russia will play out. But the Russian army and the mercenaries, known as Wagner Group, have fought side by side in Ukraine.

Wagner forces, which number between 20,000 and 50,000, claimed credit for taking the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut after months of bitter fighting.

For now, there's no letup in the fighting. Russia fired more than 40 missiles overnight at Ukrainian cities, killing three civilians.

Just In
South of Moscow

Wagner forces have entered Russia's Lipetsk province, governor says

Posted June 24, 2023 at 11:17 AM EDT

Lipetsk governor Igor Artamonov says that Wagner vehicles are present and moving across the region.

The province is a few hours south of Moscow.

"Law enforcement agencies and authorities, including those in municipalities, are taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the population," Artamonov wrote on Twitter, which was translated by NPR.

The governor added that the situation is "under control" but he urged residents to stay home until further notice.

In Case You Missed It
Speech

Putin's address to his country: Russia is 'waging a tough struggle for its future'

Posted June 24, 2023 at 9:55 AM EDT

On Saturday morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the situation with the Wagner forces in a televised speech from Moscow. Here is a Kremlin transcript:

I am addressing citizens of Russia, the personnel of the Armed Forces, law enforcement agencies and security services, and the soldiers and commanders who are now fighting in their combat positions, repulsing enemy attacks and doing it heroically – I know this as I spoke once again with the commanders of all sections of the frontline last night. I am also addressing those who were dragged into this criminal adventure through deceit or threats and pushed onto the path of a grave crime – an armed mutiny.

Today, Russia is waging a tough struggle for its future, repelling the aggression of neo-Nazis and their patrons. The entire military, economic and informational machine of the West is directed against us. We are fighting for the lives and security of our people, for our sovereignty and independence, for the right to be and remain Russia, a state with a thousand-year history.

This battle, when the fate of our nation is being decided, requires consolidation of all forces. It requires unity, consolidation and a sense of responsibility, and everything that weakens us, any strife that our external enemies can use and do so to subvert us from within, must be discarded.

Therefore, any actions that split our nation are essentially a betrayal of our people, of our comrades-in-arms who are now fighting at the frontline. This is a knife in the back of our country and our people.

A blow like this was dealt to Russia in 1917, when the country was fighting in World War I. But the victory was stolen from it: intrigues, squabbles and politicking behind the backs of the army and the nation turned into the greatest turmoil, the destruction of the army and the collapse of the state, and the loss of vast territories, ultimately leading to the tragedy of the civil war.

Russians were killing Russians and brothers were killing brothers, while all sorts of political adventurers and foreign forces profited from the situation by tearing the country apart to divide it.

We will not allow this to happen again. We will protect our people and our statehood from any threats, including from internal betrayal.

What we are facing is essentially a betrayal. Inflated ambitions and personal interests have led to treason – treason against our country, our people and the common cause which Wagner Group soldiers and commanders were fighting and dying for shoulder to shoulder, together with our other units and troops. The heroes who liberated Soledar and Artyomovsk, towns and villages in Donbass, fought and gave their lives for Novorossiya and the unity of the Russian world. Their memory and glory have also been betrayed by those who are attempting to stage a revolt and are pushing the country towards anarchy and fratricide – and ultimately, towards defeat and surrender.

Once again, any internal revolt is a deadly threat to our statehood and our nation. It is a blow to Russia, to our people. Our actions to defend the Fatherland from this threat will be harsh. All those who have consciously chosen the path of betrayal, planned an armed mutiny and taken the path of blackmail and terrorism, will inevitably be punished and will answer before the law and our people.

The Armed Forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders. Additional counterterrorism measures are now in effect in Moscow, the Moscow Region and several other regions. Resolute action will also be taken to stabilise the situation in Rostov-on-Don. It remains difficult; in effect, the work of civil and military authorities has been blocked.

As the President of Russia and Supreme Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen of Russia, I will take every effort to defend the country and protect the constitutional order as well as the lives, security and freedom of our citizens.

Those who staged the mutiny and took up arms against their comrades – they have betrayed Russia and will be brought to account. I urge those who are being dragged into this crime not to make a fatal and tragic mistake but make the only right choice: to stop taking part in criminal actions.

I am certain that we will preserve and defend what we hold dear and sacred, and together with our Motherland we will overcome any hardships and become even stronger.

International Dispatch
Africa

Russian fallout has potentially far-reaching consequences in many parts of Africa

Posted June 24, 2023 at 9:45 AM EDT

The stunning fallout between the Wagner Group and the Russian government will have far-reaching consequences in a handful of African countries — Sudan, Burkina Faso and even more so in Libya, Central African Republic and Mali.

Russian ties are extensive and Wagner has become an important and powerful presence. Just last week, the Mali government ordered the U.N. peacekeeping mission to leave the country, further isolating it from many former international allies, and reflecting its closeness to the Russian government.

The Wagner Group is conducting security operations alongside the Malian army, against Islamist groups. Up until now, ties with Russia’s government and the Wagner Group were in sync and not a conflict.

Now that could be about to change, presenting potentially difficult and risky choices for these fragile states. There has been no official reaction so far from these African governments and regimes, but they will undoubtedly be watching this conflict closely and be weighing what this changes for them.

Context
State of emergency in Moscow

Wagner forces march toward Moscow as tension between Putin and Wagner rises

Posted June 24, 2023 at 9:21 AM EDT
Russian police officers are seen, reflected on a window as they patrol in an area outside PMC Wagner Centre in Saint Petersburg, on June 24, 2023.
Olga Maltseva
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AFP via Getty Images
Russian police officers are seen, reflected on a window as they patrol in an area outside PMC Wagner Centre in Saint Petersburg, on June 24, 2023.

Tensions between the Kremlin and Wagner Group came to a head after the mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin accused Russian military top brass of carrying out lethal attacks on his soldiers.

On social media, Prigozhin vowed to remove Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu by force.

On Saturday morning, it appeared that Wagner forces were marching toward Moscow, Russia's Defense Ministry said.

The Kremlin formally charged Prigozhin with "inciting an armed revolt" early Saturday.

In an address to the nation, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, "Those who organized this military uprising, who raised arms against their fellow military comrades will answer for it."

In an audio message on his Telegram channel, Prigozhin said Putin is "deeply mistaken" about who betrayed the country and that neither he nor his fighters are about to surrender on the orders of the president or anyone else.

Secretary of State Blinken says U.S. will coordinate with its allies

Posted June 24, 2023 at 9:16 AM EDT

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. "will stay in close coordination" with its allies and partners about the situation in Russia.

"Spoke today with G7 Foreign Ministers and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to discuss the ongoing situation in Russia," Blinken tweeted. "The United States will stay in close coordination with Allies and partners as the situation continues to develop."

A separate statement from the State Department added: "Secretary Blinken reiterated that support by the United States for Ukraine will not change."

White House says it's monitoring the developments in Russia

Posted June 24, 2023 at 9:14 AM EDT

President Biden has been briefed on the unfolding situation in Russia, the White House said Saturday morning.

"We are monitoring the situation and are consulting with allies and partners on these developments.” National Security Council spokesman Adam Hodge said.