Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, reportedly left for Belarus as Russian troops left the capital.

A A short-lived rebellion by a mutinous Russian mercenary force The commander ended up breaking the retreat of his troops, but with an extraordinary challenge President Vladimir PutinTwo decades in power could have long-term consequences for his rule and the war in Ukraine.

as U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, “Face the nation“Sunday morning, the current situation in Russia is an “exit story.”

“We haven’t seen the last act,” Blinken said. “We’re looking at it very closely and carefully, but step back for a second and put this in context.”

Sunday morning, Evgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, was scheduled to depart for Belarus under a deal struck with the Kremlin. As part of the deal, Wagner troops would be pardoned and criminal charges against Prigogine would be dropped.

Blinken said on “Face the Nation” that he could not go to Prigogine’s current location, but said they were “monitoring” through intelligence.

Locals applaud soldiers of the Wagner Group military company as they prepare to leave part of the headquarters of the Southern Military District on the street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023.

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Wagner’s troops left Rostov on Sunday, a major Russian military post they had captured.

By Sunday afternoon, troops had withdrawn from the capital, and people lined the streets and flocked to hotels. Traffic returned to normal and roadblocks and checkpoints were removed, but Red Square remained close to spectators. On highways leading to Moscow, workers repaired roads hours before in a panic.

In a televised address on Saturday, Putin called for unity and accused Prigozh of treason without naming him.

Putin’s image as a tough leader was already badly damaged Ukraine war, which dragged on for 16 months and required large numbers of Russian troops. Saturday’s march on Moscow, led by Prigozhin, his onetime protégé, exposed further weaknesses, analysts said.

Some of the best forces fighting for Russia in the Ukraine were driven off the battlefield: Prigozhin’s own Wagner troops and Chechen forces were sent to intercept them.

Then they advanced unhindered on a large scale towards Moscow. Russian media reported that they shot down several helicopters and a military communications plane. The Defense Ministry did not comment.

They were stopped only by an agreement to send Prigozhin to neighboring Belarus, which supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, charges against him for armed rebellion will be dropped, and Prigozhin has ordered his troops back to their field camps.

The government said it would not prosecute Wagner fighters who participated, and that those who did not would be awarded contracts by the Defense Ministry.

Although Putin had previously vowed to punish those behind the armed uprising, Peskov backed the reversal, saying Putin’s “higher goal” was to “avoid a bloody and internal conflict with unpredictable results.”

That amnesty is in contrast to the fines and prison sentences Russian authorities have handed out to thousands of people who have criticized the war.

While this may end the immediate crisis, it may set a long-term movement in motion, analysts and observers said.

“For a dictatorship built on the idea of ​​unchallenged power, it’s a serious shame, and it’s hard to see the genie of skepticism being put back in the bottle,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the university. St Andrews in Scotland. “So, if Prigozhin is a short-term loser, Putin is likely to be a long-term loser.”

Blinken noted on “Meet the Press” that the challenge to Putin came from within.

“I think we’ve seen more cracks appear in the Russian facade,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We have all kinds of new questions that Putin will have to address in the coming weeks and months.”

Prigozhin, who sent a series of audio and video updates during his agitation, has gone silent since the Kremlin announced the deal.

It is not clear if he is still in Belarus or if any of his Wagner troops will follow him.

In response to questions from The Associated Press, Prigozhin’s press office said he could not respond immediately but would “respond to questions upon normal contact.”

Video taken by The Associated Press in Rostov-on-Don showed people cheering Wagner’s troops as they left. Some ran to shake hands with Prigozhin, who was riding in an SUV.

The regional governor said all troops had since left the city. Russian news agencies reported that Lipetsk officials confirmed that Wagner’s forces had withdrawn from the area, which sits on the road from Rostov to Moscow.

Moscow confirmed the arrival of the forces by setting up checkpoints with armored vehicles and troops on the southern edge of the city. State television in Chechnya reported that some 3,000 Chechen soldiers had been dragged into Ukraine without a fight and rushed there early Saturday morning. Russian troops armed with machine guns set up checkpoints on the southern outskirts of Moscow. Crews dug up sections of highways to slow down the march.

Announcers on government-controlled television stations cast the crisis as a show of Putin’s wisdom and broadcast footage of Wagner’s troops retreating from Rostov-on-Don.

People there, interviewed by Channel 1, praised Putin’s role.

But the US-based Institute of War Research warned that “the Kremlin now faces a deeply unstable balance”.

“This deal is a short-term solution, not a long-term solution,” wrote the agency, which has monitored the war in Ukraine from the start.

Prigozhin called for the dismissal of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a longtime critic of Prigozhin’s war in Ukraine.

The US had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time. This contradicts Prigozhin’s claim that his rebellion was in response to the Russian military’s attack on his camps in Ukraine on Friday.

In announcing the rebellion, Prigozhin accused Russian forces of targeting the Wagner camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery. General of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov ordered the attacks following a meeting with Shoigu in which he alleged they decided to destroy the military contractor.

The Ministry of Defense has denied that the camps were attacked.

Congressional leaders briefed Wagner on the creation earlier last week, a person familiar with the matter said. The man was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The US intelligence briefing was first reported by CNN.

A possible motivation for Prigozhin’s rebellion was a demand by the Russian Defense Ministry, backed by Putin, that private companies sign contracts with it by July 1. Prigogine refused to do so.

The Ukrainians hoped that Russian infighting would create an opportunity for their military to take back territory captured by Russian forces.

“These events would have been of great comfort to the Ukrainian government and military,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the Institute for International Strategic Studies.

Wagner’s troops played an important role in the war in Ukraine, capturing the eastern city of Bagmut, an area where the bloodiest and longest battles took place.

The Kremlin’s amnesty for Prigozhin was negotiated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which may have boosted his status in his relationship with Putin.

Prigozhin, 62, an ex-convict, had longstanding ties to Putin and won lucrative Kremlin catering contracts, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef.”

Wagner has sent military contractors to Libya, Syria and several African countries, as well as Ukraine.

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