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Wagner rebels ‘back down’ as Moscow braces for an assault

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By AFP and Sputnik

Russia warned the West yesterday against taking advantage of an armed insurrection carried out by the Wagner mercenary group in Russia to achieve what Moscow said were their “anti-Russian” goals. “We warn the Western countries against any hint of (the) possible use of the domestic Russian situation to achieve their Russophobic goals,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. “All goals and objectives of the special military operation will be fulfilled,” it added, using the Kremlin preferred term for Moscow’s large-scale military intervention in Ukraine.

The office of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said late yesterday that he had brokered a deal with mutinous Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin – the Wagner chief – who had agreed to de-escalate the situation. The announcement, carried on the official Telegram channel of the Belarusian presidency, said Prigozhin had agreed to halt the further movement of Wagner fighters across Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had vowed to defeat the mercenaries as they advanced towards Moscow after seizing a key military base yesterday and as he heads off the threat of a civil war. The rapidly escalating events mark the most serious challenge yet to the Kremlin chief – and Russia’s most serious security crisis since Putin came to power in late 1999.

Putin’s spokesperson insisted that he was still at work in the Kremlin and had not fled Moscow, as regular forces launched a “counter-terrorist operation” to halt the rebel advance in the Voronezh region, on the Wagner force’s route to the capital. The governor of the Lipetsk region, whose capital is just 420km south of Moscow, said Wagner’s private military force was “moving across” the territory and urged civilians not to leave their homes.

Prigozhin, once a close Putin ally, said his troops had taken control of the military command centre and airbase in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, the nerve centre of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine, and vowed to topple Moscow’s top military leaders. “We got to Rostov. Without a single shot, we captured the HQ building,” he said, in an audio message on social media channels, claiming that local civilians had welcomed the operation. “Why does the country support us? Because we went on a march of justice,” he said, claiming that his men had not killed any soldiers despite having been hit with strikes from army “artillery and, after that, from helicopters”.

‘Stab in the back’

Putin said, as a citizen of Russia, he would do everything to defend the country, Sputnik reported “This battle, when the fate of our nation is being decided upon, requires unity of all forces, unity, consolidation and responsibility, when everything that weakens us must be cast aside, any strife that our external enemies can and do exploit to undermine us from within,” Putin said in a televised address to the nation.

He called the developments “a stab in the back of our country and our people”. “As president of Russia and commander-in-chief, as a citizen of Russia, I will do everything to defend the country, to protect the constitutional order, the lives, security and freedom of citizens,” he said in his address. Putin said the armed forces and other state bodies had received the necessary orders, and additional anti-terrorist measures were being taken in Moscow, the Moscow region and a number of other regions. “Decisive measures are also being taken to stabilise the situation in Rostov-on-Don. It remains complicated, with the work of civilian and military administrative bodies effectively blocked,” he said.

Putin said the name and glory of the Wagner Group fighters who fought in the special military operation and paid the ultimate sacrifice for the unity of the Russian world had been betrayed by those who had staged the rebellion.

“The heroes who liberated Soledar and Artyomovsk (Bakhmut), the cities and towns of Donbas, fought and gave their lives for Novorossiya, for the unity of the Russian world.

“Their name and glory have also been betrayed by those who are trying to organise a mutiny, pushing the country toward anarchy and fratricide, to defeat, and ultimately to capitulation,” he said.

“Any internal turmoil is a deadly threat to our statehood and to us as a nation. This is a blow to Russia and to our people,” Putin said, demanding national unity. “Extravagant ambitions and personal interests led to treason,” Putin said, referring to Prigozhin, who built his powerbase as a catering contractor to the Kremlin and now runs a private military force.

“All those who consciously stood on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed rebellion, stood on the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, before the law and before our people,” Putin vowed. The FSB security service urged Wagner fighters to detain Prigozhin.

Another Putin ally, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, said that he had dispatched his own units to help quash the Wagner rebellion. “Defence ministry and National Guard fighters of the Chechen Republic have already left for the zones of tension,” Kadyrov said on Telegram. “The rebellion must be put down, and if harsh measures are necessary, we are ready!”

Belarus also backed Moscow in the conflict. “Any provocation, any internal conflict in military or political circles, in the information field or in civil society is a gift to the collective West,” the Belarusian foreign ministry said.

Latvia announced that it was tightening security on its Russian border and would not admit refugees fleeing the chaos. After Putin’s speech accusing him of treason, Prigozhin launched a second broadside. “On treason of the motherland: the president is deeply wrong. We are patriots of our motherland,” Prigozhin said. “Nobody plans to turn themselves in at the request of the president, the FSB or anyone else.”

Russia’s headquarters in Rostovon-Don is a key logistical base for its offensive in Ukraine. Armed Wagner fighters deployed around administrative buildings in Rostov and tanks could be seen in the city centre. As the insurrection force headed north through Voronezh and Lipetsk towards Moscow, the capital’s mayor announced that “anti-terrorist” measures were being taken. Critical facilities were “under reinforced protection”, TASS reported, citing a law enforcement source.

Ukraine offensive

While Prigozhin’s outfit fought at the forefront of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine, in recent months it has engaged in a bitter feud with Moscow’s military leadership. He has repeatedly blamed Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, for his fighters’ deaths.

The Russian defence ministry warned that Ukrainian troops were taking advantage of the infighting to ready an assault near the eastern hot spot of Bakhmut. A prominent Russian general urged Prigozhin to call off efforts to remove the defence ministry leadership. “I urge you to stop,” said Sergei Surovikin, commander of Russia’s aerospace forces, in a video address.

Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin asked people to refrain from trips around the city as far as possible, given that a counter-terrorism operation had been declared, and said the situation was “difficult”. Sobyanin also said in a statement that tomorrow would be a non-working day – with some exceptions – in order “to minimise risks”. – AFP and Sputnik