Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who turned his Wagner Group fighters against the military leadership in Moscow, will move to Belarus and the criminal charges against him for mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped, the Kremlin said Saturday.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko negotiated the deal with the Wagner Group chief, his office said, with the approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko said he has known Prigozhin personally for 20 years.
The negotiations also guaranteed that Wagner fighters will not be prosecuted, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “We have always respected their heroic deeds at the front," he said, adding that Moscow was grateful to Lukashenko for his role in de-escalating the crisis.
Those fighters who did not participate in the rebellion, Peskov said, would be offered contracts with the Defense Ministry, which has been seeking to bring all autonomous volunteer forces under its control by July 1.
Asked if there would be any personnel changes in the Russian Defense Ministry as part of the deal, Peskov said "These matters are the sole prerogative and within the competence of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief (Putin) in accordance with the constitution of the Russian Federation. Therefore, it is unlikely that these topics could have been discussed in the course of the above-mentioned contacts."
The Russian spokesman did not reveal whether there were any concessions made to persuade Prigozhin to withdraw all his forces, other than the guarantees for his safety — something he said Putin had given his word on — and for the safety of Prigozhin's men.
He called the events that unraveled since Friday, "tragic."
Earlier Saturday, Prigozhin and his fighters got within about 200 kilometers of Moscow before he ordered his men to halt their advance, turn their convoy around and return to their bases in Ukraine to avoid bloodshed.
In an audio message released by his press service, Prigozhin said: "They wanted to disband the Wagner military company. We embarked on a march of justice on June 23. In 24 hours, we got to within 200 kilometers of Moscow. In this time, we did not spill a single drop of our fighters' blood.
"Now the moment has come when blood could be spilled. Understanding responsibility [for the chance] that Russian blood will be spilled on one side, we are turning our columns around and going back to field camps as planned,” he said in the audio message on his channel on the messaging app Telegram.
Prigozhin didn’t say whether the Kremlin has responded to his demand to oust Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu or what, if anything, Lukashenko had promised him in their negotiations.
Moscow had braced for the arrival of the private army led by the rebellious commander. And Putin had vowed he would face harsh consequences. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.
By Saturday evening, the Russian mercenary fighters were seen pulling out of Rostov-on-Don, a city of more than a million people near the border with Ukraine that they had taken control of a day earlier.
In Rostov, which serves as the main rear logistical hub for Russia's entire invasion force, residents had milled about, recording on mobile phones, as Wagner Group mercenary fighters in armored vehicles and battle tanks took up positions, Reuters reported.
US, allies react
U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom on Saturday, the White House said.
"The leaders discussed the situation in Russia. They also affirmed their unwavering support for Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement.
Biden was briefed about the unfolding situation in Russia by his national security team on Saturday morning, the White House said, adding that the president will continue to be briefed throughout the day.
Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with foreign ministers from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the EU to discuss the ongoing situation in Russia, according to a statement issued Saturday by the State Department.
Blinken reiterated that support by the United States for Ukraine will not change and added that the U.S. will stay in close coordination with allies and partners.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Twitter, " Anyone who chooses the path of evil destroys themselves. ... For a long time, Russia used propaganda to mask its weakness and the stupidity of its government. And now there is so much chaos that no lie can hide it.”
In announcing the rebellion Friday, Prigozhin said he wanted to punish Shoigu after he accused Russian government forces of attacking Wagner field camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery. He claimed that “a huge number of our comrades got killed.”
"The Minister of Defense arrived specially in Rostov to carry out an operation to destroy the Wagner PMC (private military company)," he wrote on his Telegram social media channel.
Russia’s Defense Ministry has denied the allegations.
- Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.