As Russia rose, the future of mercenaries and the direction of the war in Ukraine remained uncertain

Russian government troops withdrew from the streets of Moscow on Sunday and rebel mercenaries occupying other cities disappeared, but the brief uprising weakened President Vladimir Putin just as his forces is facing a fierce counterattack in Ukraine.

The aborted march into the capital by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner troops, some of the most effective fighters in Ukraine, also made their fates precarious.

Under the terms of the agreement to end the crisis, Prigozhin will live in exile in Belarus but will not be prosecuted. Neither Putin nor Prigozhin have been heard since the deal, brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, was announced on Saturday night.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the events of the weekend as “unusual,” recalling that 16 months ago, Putin seemed ready to take Ukraine’s capital and now he must defend Moscow from forces led by his former protégé.

“I think we’ve seen a lot of cracks appear on the Russian facade,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“It’s too early to say exactly where they’re going and when they’ll get there, but we certainly have all sorts of new questions that Putin will have to address in the coming weeks and months.”

It remains unclear what the cracks caused by the 24-hour uprising mean for the war in Ukraine. But it resulted in some of the best forces fighting for Russia being withdrawn from the battlefield: Prigozhin’s Wagner armies, who demonstrated their effectiveness in securing the Kremlin’s only land victory. for months, in Bakhmut, and Chechen soldiers were sent to stop them on the battlefield. reach Moscow.

Wagner’s rapid, largely unhindered advance also exposed weaknesses in Russia’s military and security forces.

Michael Kofman, director of Russian Studies at the CAN research group, said: “I honestly think that Wagner could have done more damage to the Russian aerospace forces yesterday than the attack by Russia. Ukraine has caused in the past three weeks.

Wagner forces are said to have shot down several helicopters and a military communications plane. The Department of Defense has not commented.

The Ukrainians hope that Russia’s infighting may provide an opportunity for their troops, which are in the early stages of a counter-offensive, to regain territory held by Russian forces.

Lord Richard Dannatt, former chief of the general staff of the British armed forces, said: “Putin and the Russian army have been greatly reduced, and this has important implications for Ukraine. “… Prigozhin left the stage to go. to Belarus, but is that the end for Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group?”

Under the terms of the agreement to halt Prigozhin’s advance, Wagner troops that did not support the uprising would be contracted directly with the Russian military, placing them under the control of the military elite that Prigozhin was trying to overthrow. pour. One possible motive for Prigozhin’s rebellion was a request by the Ministry of Defense, supported by Putin, that private companies must sign contracts with the ministry by July 1. Prigozhin refused to do so. there.

“What we do not know, but will discover in the coming hours and days, is how many of his warriors have gone with him, because if he had gone to Belarus and kept a fighting force effective around him, he… Dannatt said: “Again a threat” to Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy said he told US President Joe Biden in a phone call on Sunday that the aborted uprising in Russia had “exposed the weakness of the Putin regime”.

In a blitzkrieg, Prigozhin’s forces on Saturday took control of two military centers in southern Russia and 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Moscow before retreating.

Residents in Rostov-on-Don cheered Wagner’s troops as they departed late on Saturday, a sight that made Putin fear a mass uprising. Some ran to shake Prigozhin’s hand as he drove the SUV away.

However, the uprising quickly failed, in part because Prigozhin did not receive the expected support from the Russian security services. In fact, the Federal Security Service immediately called for his arrest.

“It’s clear that Prigozhin has lost his cool,” retired US General David Petraeus, a former CIA director, told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“This uprising, although it has received some acclaim along the way, doesn’t seem to generate the support he had hoped for.”

Rostov seemed quiet on Sunday morning, with only tank tracks on the road as a reminder of the Wagner warriors.

“It all ended perfectly, thank God. With minimal casualties, I think. Well done,” said one resident, who only agreed to give his name, Sergei. He said Wagner soldiers used to be heroes to him, but now they are not.

In the Lipetsk region, which is on the way to Moscow, residents seem unfazed by the chaos.

“They didn’t destroy anything. They calmly stood on the sidewalk and did not approach or talk to anyone,” Milena Gorbunova told AP.

As Wagner’s forces advanced north to Moscow, Russian troops armed with machine guns set up checkpoints on the outskirts. By Sunday afternoon, troops had withdrawn and traffic was back to normal, although Red Square remained closed to visitors. On the highways leading to Moscow, road repair crews were ripped apart just hours earlier in panic.

State-controlled TV stations put the deal to end the crisis as a show of Putin’s wisdom and broadcast Wagner troops retreating from Rostov-on-Don to relieve local residents. fear a bloody battle for control of the city. Those there interviewed by Channel 1 praised Putin’s handling of the crisis.

But the uprising and the deal that ended it severely damaged Putin’s reputation as a leader willing to ruthlessly punish anyone who challenged his power.

Prigozhin has demanded the ouster of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom Prigozhin has long criticized with dry words about his conduct of the war in Ukraine.

The United States has intelligence that Prigozhin has been building up its forces near the border with Russia for some time. That contradicts Prigozhin’s claim that his uprising was a response to an attack on his field camps in Ukraine on Friday by Russian troops that he said killed a number of people. his big man. The Ministry of Defense denies attacking the camps.

Representative Mike Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the march into Moscow appeared to have been pre-planned.

“Now, as a soldier, he understands the logistics and really the support he’s going to need to do it,” Turner said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“This is something that should have been planned for a considerable amount of time to be able to work the way it is,” he said.


Associated Press writers Danica Kirka in London and Nomaan Merchant in Washington, contributed to this report.


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