Wagner mercenary chief says he's told troops to halt march on Moscow

In another unexpected turn, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has said he has pulled his troops back from Moscow after an deal was reportedly brokered by Belarus

The head of the Wagner mercenary group says he has ordered his mercenaries to halt their march on Moscow as they were just 200km away from the Russian capital. The announcement from Yevgeny Prigozhin appeared to defuse a growing crisis after he led an insurrection posing the biggest existential threat to Vladimir Putin's presidency.

Russian military and police were on high alert as they erected barriers and sand bags on the highways leading to Moscow.

However, at the last minute, Prigozhin said he decided to turn them back to avoid “shedding Russian blood.” He didn’t say whether the Kremlin has responded to his demand to oust defence minister Sergei Shoigu. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.

The announcement follows a statement from the office of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko saying that he had negotiated a deal with Prigozhin after previously discussing the issue with Putin.

A tank with the Wagner Group's flag and writing reading 'Siberia' stands guard in Rostov-on-Don. Credit: AP

Prigozhin has accepted Lukashenko’s offer to halt the Wagner group’s advance and further steps to de-escalate the tensions, Lukashenko’s office said, adding that the proposed settlement contains security guarantees for Wagner troops.

It comes after Wagner fighters claimed to have taken over a key Russian city after crossing the border from Ukraine.

On Saturday, Prigozhin posted a video of himself in Rostov-on-Don at the Russian military headquarters that oversees the fighting in Ukraine, claiming his forces had the site under their control.

Other videos posted on social media appeared to show military vehicles, including tanks, on the streets outside.

Prigozhin, whose troops were behind some of the most brutal battles against Ukraine on behalf of the Kremlin, called for an armed rebellion aimed at ousting Shoigu, over claims he ordered a rocket strike on his fighters.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko claims to have brokered a deal between Russia's leadership and Wagner. Credit: AP

Putin said Wagner's actions are "high treason". He went on to call the rebellion a "stab in the back" and vowed those involved will "answer before the law".

Prigozhin said his fighters would not surrender, as “we do not want the country to live on in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”

“Regarding the betrayal of the motherland, the president was deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our homeland,” he said in an audio message on his Telegram channel.

Authorities declared a “counterterrorist regime” in the capital and its surrounding region, enhancing security and restricting some movement. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin urged residents not to drive and said key city services were on high readiness.

He declared Monday to be a nonworking day for most residents except public servants and some industrial enterprises.

Social media videos appear to show Wagner troops on the streets of Moscow. Credit: Ostorozhno Novosti

Crews also dug up parts of highways in an apparent bid to slow the march of the Wagner mercenary army. Access to Red Square was closed, two major museums were evacuated and a park was shut.

As Wagner forces crossed from Ukraine into Russia and reached Rostov, Prigozhin said his forces faced no resistance from young conscripts at checkpoints, adding that his troops "aren't fighting against children".

“But we will destroy anyone who stands in our way,” he warned in one of a series of angry video and audio recordings “We are moving forward and will go until the end.”

A video broadcast on state TV station Russia Today appears to show people fleeing from an explosion at the military HQ in Rostov. The footage has not been verified by ITV News.

Prigozhin alleged that the chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, scrambled warplanes to strike Wagner’s convoys, which were driving alongside ordinary vehicles.

He also said his forces shot down a Russian military helicopter that fired on a civilian convoy, but there was no independent confirmation of this.

On Friday, he said Wagner field camps in Ukraine were struck by rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery fire on orders from Gerasimov, following a meeting in Rostov with Shoigu, at which they decided to destroy Wagner. Prigozhin said he had 25,000 troops under his command and would punish the defence minister in an armed rebellion, and urged the army not to offer resistance: “This is not a military coup, but a march of justice.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...

On Saturday, Putin said in a televised address: “All those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment. The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders.

He condemned the rebellion at a time when Russia was “fighting the toughest battle for its future” with its war in Ukraine. “The entire military, economic and information machine of the West is waged against us,” Putin said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy weighed in on the conflict on Saturday, claiming Moscow is suffering “full-scale weakness” and that Kyiv was protecting Europe from “the spread of Russian evil and chaos”.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken has spoken with his counterparts in Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom to discuss the unfolding situation, reiterating that Washington's support for Ukraine would not change.

The Wagner forces have played a crucial role in Russia’s war in Ukraine, succeeding in taking the city where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place, Bakhmut.

Wagner fighters guard an area at the HQ of Rostov-on-Don's southern military district. Credit: AP

However, Prigozhin has increasingly criticised Russia’s military brass, accusing it of incompetence, of starving his troops of weapons and ammunition and for taking the credit for his troop's achievements on the battlefield.

On Friday, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee, which is part of the Federal Security Services, or FSB, charged Prigozhin with calling for an armed rebellion, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

ITV News understands the UK's Foreign Secretary James Cleverly chaired an emergency COBRA meeting to discuss the revolt. Elsewhere, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he is in touch with allies about the rebellion.

“We’re keeping a close eye on the situation, as it’s evolving on the ground as we speak,” he told the BBC. “The most important thing I’d say is for all parties to be responsible and to protect civilians, and that’s about as much as I can say at this moment.” Asked whether he had spoken to Mr Zelenskyy, Mr Sunak said: “I’m in touch with our allies. “I’ll be speaking to some of them later today, as you would expect us to be co-ordinated on a situation like this, but it is evolving as we speak.” He declined to say whether it is good or bad news that Mr Putin is being challenged.