Russian Mercenaries Opt to Halt Advancement Towards Moscow, Opting for Peaceful Resolution

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A group of heavily armed Russian mercenaries, who had been advancing toward Moscow, abruptly reversed their course on Saturday, effectively de-escalating a significant challenge to President Vladimir Putin's authority. The leader of the mercenaries, Yevgeny Prigozhin, formerly an ally of Putin and the founder of the Wagner army, stated that their retreat was intended to prevent bloodshed.

According to Prigozhin, his men had approached within 125 miles (200 km) of the capital. In anticipation of their arrival, Moscow had deployed soldiers and issued advisories to residents, urging them to stay indoors.

Videos showed the Wagner fighters capturing the city of Rostov, hundreds of miles south of Moscow, before embarking on a convoy through the country. They transported tanks and armored trucks, breaking through barricades erected to impede their progress.

On Saturday night, witnesses observed Wagner fighters loading tanks onto trailers as they began their withdrawal from the military headquarters they had seized in Rostov.

Speaking from an undisclosed location while dressed in full combat attire, Prigozhin addressed the situation in a video, stating, "Within 24 hours, we approached Moscow within 200 km. Throughout this time, not a single drop of our fighters' blood was spilled." He further explained that their decision to turn back and return to their field camps was prompted by the understanding that Russian lives would be lost if the conflict escalated.

The office of Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus, claimed that the decision to halt the mercenaries' advance was brokered by Lukashenko himself with Putin's consent, in exchange for guarantees of their safety. As part of the agreement, Prigozhin will relocate to Belarus. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, disclosed that Lukashenko had volunteered to mediate due to his personal acquaintance with the mercenary leader spanning two decades.

Surprisingly, Russia's regular armed forces provided minimal resistance to the Wagner fighters' insurrection, raising concerns about Putin's control over the country, despite the abrupt termination of their advance.

Prior to the mercenaries' retreat, Prigozhin described their movement as a "march for justice," aimed at removing corrupt and inept Russian commanders whom he held responsible for the mishandling of the conflict in Ukraine.

In a televised address from the Kremlin, Putin declared that the Wagner rebellion posed a threat to Russia's very existence. He asserted, "We are fighting for the lives and security of our people, for our sovereignty and independence, for the right to remain Russia, a state with a thousand-year history." Putin vowed to punish those responsible for organizing an armed insurrection.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy commented on the Wagner revolt, emphasizing the turmoil within Russia. He stated in his nightly video address, "Today, the world can witness that the masters of Russia exercise no control. Complete chaos. Absolute unpredictability." Zelenskiy's remarks followed a series of high-level calls between Western leaders regarding the situation.

Reuters obtained footage revealing troop carriers and flatbed trucks transporting tanks advancing more than 30 miles (50 km) beyond the town of Voronezh, which is over halfway to Moscow. A helicopter fired upon the convoy near Voronezh, resulting in a fuel depot explosion captured on video.

Prigozhin, a former convict, leads the fighters comprising thousands of ex-prisoners recruited from Russian jails. His troops played a pivotal role in the bloodiest battles during the 16-month war in Ukraine, including the fight for the eastern city of Bakhmut. Prigozhin had openly criticized the military's top brass, particularly Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov,

 accusing them of incompetence and withholding ammunition from his fighters.

Earlier this month, Prigozhin defied orders to sign a contract placing his troops under the command of the Defense Ministry. Following his allegations that the military had killed many of his fighters in an airstrike, he initiated the apparent mutiny on Friday. The Defense Ministry denied the accusations.

Prigozhin claimed to have captured the headquarters of Russia's Southern Military District in Rostov without firing a single shot. The city serves as the primary logistical hub for Russia's invasion force in Ukraine and is situated in a vital oil, gas, and grain region. During the mercenaries' presence in Rostov, local residents calmly observed and recorded their movements on mobile phones as armored vehicles and battle tanks assumed strategic positions. The tanks displayed various slogans, including "Siberia" written in red paint on the front, symbolizing an intention to traverse Russia's breadth.

Concerns arose in Western capitals, prompting close monitoring of the situation. U.S. President Joe Biden held conversations with the leaders of France, Germany, and Britain, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken engaged with his counterparts in the G7 countries.

Army General Mark Milley, the top U.S. military officer, canceled a planned trip to the Middle East due to the evolving circumstances, which he described as "the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times."

The insurrection's potential consequences include disruption within Russia's invasion force in Ukraine, just as Kyiv launches its most robust counteroffensive since the war's outbreak in February of last year. Ukrainian forces reported making progress near Bakhmut, on the eastern front, as well as further south. Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar informed via Telegram that an offensive had been initiated near a cluster of villages surrounding Bakhmut. Wagner forces had seized control of Bakhmut in May after months of intense fighting.

"In all these areas, we have made advances," stated Maliar.

Commander Oleksandr Tarnavskiy, overseeing the southern front, announced that Ukrainian forces had liberated a region near Krasnohorivka, west of Donetsk, which is a regional center held by Russia. The area had been under Russian control since separatist forces backed by Moscow took charge in 2014.

Moscow authorities responded by declaring a "counterterrorist regime" in the capital and its surrounding region. Security measures were heightened, and certain movements were restricted. Troops erected checkpoints, positioned sandbags, and deployed machine guns on the southern outskirts of the city.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin cautioned that traffic in certain areas of the capital could be restricted, while declaring Monday a non-working day for most residents.

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