Wagner mercenary force chief Yevgeny Prigozhin will move to Belarus under a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to end an armed mutiny that Prigozhin had led against Russia's military leadership, the Kremlin said on Saturday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Lukashenko had offered to mediate, with Russian President Vladimir Putin's agreement, because he had known Prigozhin personally for around 20 years.
Prigozhin said later on Saturday that he had ordered his fighters advancing on Moscow in convoy to turn around and return to their bases to avoid bloodshed. The Kremlin later confirmed a deal had been struck and that Prigozhin would have all charges against him dropped and move to Belarus.
"The president of Belarus, having further clarified the situation through his own available channels, held talks with the head of the Wagner PMC (private military company), Yevgeny Prigozhin, in coordination with the President of Russia," the Belarusian statement said.
"The talks lasted for an entire day. As a result, they came to an agreement on the inadmissibility of unleashing a bloodbath on the territory of Russia.
Yevgeny Prigozhin accepted the offer of President Alexander Lukashenko to stop the movement of Wagner's armed men on Russian territory and to take further steps to de-escalate tensions."
In their second call Saturday, Putin thanked Lukashenko for his mediation efforts with Prigozhin. "Today, at 9pm, the two presidents spoke again," the Belarusian message stated. "President Lukashenko informed President Putin in detail about the outcome of his talks with the Wagner Group personnel. President Putin expressed his gratitude for his work."
In an audio message addressed to his forces, Prigozhin accused Russian authorities of trying to break the private militia apart and said his fighters had advanced to within 200 km (124 miles) of Moscow in the last 24 hours.
"They wanted to break us apart, so we decided on June 23 as the 'March of Justice' day. On the day we marched, we managed to reach less than 200 kilometers from Moscow. During this time, not a single drop of our soldiers' blood was shed," the billionaire restauranteur said.
"Now there is a possibility of bloodshed. Due to the understanding that Russian blood can be spilled, we will turn back convoys and continue in the opposite direction, toward our camps, according to the plan."
Meanwhile, state-owned Russian television station RT reported that Wagner Group fighters have already begun packing equipment in Rostov-on-Don, the city near the Ukrainian border that they seized Saturday morning. In a video circulated, mercenaries were seen preparing to leave the city following Prigozhin's announcement.
Western and American intelligence sources told CNN that Prigozhin had been planning for a long time to challenge the leadership of the Russian military, but his ultimate goal was not clear.
They said that members of the U.S. Congress were briefed this week on the movements of the Wagner Group and indicated that there were signs that Prigozhin had been planning this dramatic move for some time, and had been amassing weapons and ammunition for this purpose.
One intelligence source stated that Prigozhin's claims of a lack of weaponry for operations in Ukraine were actually a deliberate deception, designed to establish the possibility of challenging the Russian military leadership.
"While it was clear that he was planning a dramatic move, there was uncertainty about what would actually happen," one source said. Another source mentioned that "everything happened very quickly, and it was difficult to understand how serious his threat was."
Despite the intelligence on the possibility of Prigozhin's move, American officials were caught unprepared, leading to the cancellation of the visit by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States to Mark Milley to Israel.
Earlier on Saturday, Israel's Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning to Russia against the backdrop of the tensions in the country. "Given the events in Russia at this time, the Foreign Ministry advises Israeli citizens to consider the essentiality of their travel to the country, and for residents of Russia to consider the essentiality of their stay, and in any case, to avoid approaching areas of tension," the statement read.
Additionally, the ministry announced the reinforcement of consular teams in Israeli missions in Russia.
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen held a discussion with Israel's ambassador to Moscow Alex Ben-Zvi in light of tension in Russia.
"The Foreign Ministry is closely monitoring the events in Moscow and the recent developments, and we are prepared for any scenario," Cohen said. "We anticipate that many Israelis in Russia may require consular assistance, and therefore, we will strengthen the consular team in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Even in such moments, Foreign Ministry emissaries will continue to be available to Israeli citizens in need of assistance."
Simultaneously, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant conducted a situation assessment along with the heads of the national security establishment regarding the recent developments in Russia in preparation for a meeting led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
First published: 20:59, 06.24.23