Wagner Boss to Leave Russia as Reports Say US Spy Agencies Picked Up Signs of Planned Uprising Days Ago

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The chief of the rebel Wagner mercenary force Yevgeny Prigozhin will leave Russia and won’t face charges after calling off his troops’ advance towards Moscow, as reports emerged that US spy agencies had picked up signs days ago that he was preparing to rise up against Russia’s defence establishment.

Late on Saturday, video emerged of Prigozhin leaving the headquarters of the southern military district in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don after agreeing to move to Belarus. His exact whereabouts on Sunday morning were not clear. Images also showed Wagner fighters withdrawing from the city.

The developments came amid reports in the Washington Post and New York Times that said US intelligence officials had conducted briefings at the White House, the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill about the potential for unrest in nuclear-armed Russia a full day before it unfolded.

Spy agencies first began tracking indications that Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenary force intended to move against the Russian military leadership in mid-June, the Post said. The Times said the information was both solid and alarming by midweek, leading to the flurry of briefings.

As US intelligence officials pinned down information that Prigozhin was preparing military action, they grew concerned about chaos in a country with a powerful nuclear arsenal, the Times reported.

US spy agencies believe that Putin himself was informed that Prigozhin, once a close ally, was plotting his rebellion at least a day before it occurred, the Post reported.

In an uprising that played out with dizzying speed, Prigozhin’s forces moved from their camps in Ukraine into Russia on Friday and took over a regional military command in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, before advancing toward Moscow.

Just as suddenly, the advance was called off on Saturday, and Russian state media said the Wagner troops would return to Ukraine while Prigozhin would move to neighboring Belarus.

The Kremlin said it would not prosecute Prigozhin or the armed members of the Wagner group.

On Sunday morning all restrictions previously imposed on highways in Russia were lifted, the Tass news agency reported, citing the Federal Road Agency. Authorities in the southern Lipetsk region announced the lifting of restrictions after earlier reporting Wagner fighters in their territory.

Prigozhin’s decision to halt his advance and move to Belarus followed negotiations with the Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

At the end of an extraordinary day, during which a visibly angry Vladimir Putin had made an emergency television broadcast railing against the “deadly threat to our state”, Progozhin said that he wanted to avoid shedding Russian blood and would order his troops back to their bases instead.

“Now the moment has come when blood can be shed,” he said. “Therefore, realising all the responsibility for the fact that Russian blood will be shed from one side, we will turn our convoys around and go in the opposite direction to our field camps.

The Kremlin had earlier been forced to mobilise its forces and prepare defences as Prigozhin sent a convoy of armed troops towards Moscow.

Officials dug anti-tank ditches into federal highways, erected machine-gun emplacements at the city limits, and deployed infantry fighting vehicles on the streets of Moscow, while Putin vowed that the Russian state would deal brutally with its largest armed insurrection since the fall of the Soviet Union.

As the mercenaries’ convoy headed towards the capital, Moscow residents were urged by the city’s mayor to stay at home. Sergei Sobyanin said that Monday would be a “non-working day” in order to “minimise risks”.

The convoy of lorries, infantry fighting vehicles and other military hardware had been hoping to take advantage of the element of surprise and reach Moscow before it was intercepted by a larger detachment of Russian regular troops, according to analysts and military bloggers.

A furious Putin appeared on television earlier on Saturday in an emergency broadcast, issuing a nationwide call for unity in the face of a mutinous strike that he compared to the revolution of 1917.

“Any internal mutiny is a deadly threat to our state, to us as a nation,” he said.

“It’s an attempt to subvert us from inside. This is treason in the face of those who are fighting on the front,” Putin told the Russian public. “This is a stab in the back of our troops and the people of Russia.” The response, he promised, would be “brutal”.

In Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Putin was “obviously very afraid” and “probably hiding”.

In an evening address on Saturday he said: “I am sure that he is no longer in Moscow … He knows what he is afraid of because he himself created this threat.”

Putin has not commented on the Belarus-brokered deal that negotiated Prigozhin’s exit from Russia and the withdrawal of Wagner troops from Rostov. He is believed to have left Moscow on a plane on Saturday afternoon and his whereabouts are unclear.

“Today the world saw that the bosses of Russia do not control anything. Nothing at all. Complete chaos. Complete absence of any predictability. And it is happening on Russian territory, which is fully loaded with weapons,” said Zelenskiy.

Ukrainian officials said the chaos in Russia worked to Kyiv’s advantage.

“Any chaos behind the enemy lines works in our interests,” state-run Ukrinform news agency quoted Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba as saying on Saturday.

Kuleba said it was too early to speak of consequences for Ukraine, but later in the day he held a call with US secretary of state Antony Blinken to discuss the events and Kyiv’s counteroffensive efforts.

Ukraine’s military reported on Saturday an offensive near villages ringing Bakhmut, which was taken by Wagner forces in May after months of fighting. Kyiv also claimed the liberation of Krasnohorivka village in Donetsk, but gains were incremental.

The events in Russia triggered concerns in the US over the safety of Moscow’s nuclear arsenal.

“We have not seen any changes in the disposition of Russian nuclear forces,” said a national security council spokesperson in response to questions from Reuters. “Russia has a special responsibility to maintain command, control, and custody of its nuclear forces and to ensure that no actions are taken that imperil strategic stability.”

But the safety of these weapons is a persistent worry for Washington. US intelligence agencies said in their 2023 Annual Threat assessment that “Russia’s nuclear material security … remains a concern despite improvements to material protection, control, and accounting at Russia’s nuclear sites since the 1990s.”

“The IC (intelligence community) will be super-focused on the (Russian) nuclear stockpile,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer who oversaw the agency’s clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia.

“You want to know who has control of the nuclear weapons because you’re worried that terrorists or bad guys like (Chechen leader Ramzan) Kadyrov might come after them for the leverage they can get,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former senior CIA officer who served as the agency’s Moscow station chief.

Source : TheGuardian