Wagner boss 'had troops near Russian border for several days' before dramatic revolt

Vladimir Putin is trying to recover some authority after a weekend in which it has been challenged as never before, as Europe Editor James Mates reports

The rebellious mercenary commander who ordered his troops to march on Moscow had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time, according to US intelligence.

On Saturday, Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin vowed to take "revenge" on the Russian military and ordered his men to cross over from Ukraine to Russia in order to oust the country's top brass.

However, the greatest challenge to President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades in power fizzled out, as the two sides reached a deal for Prigozhin to go into exile and sound the retreat.

Saturday's events severely dented Putin’s reputation as a leader who is willing to ruthlessly punish anyone who challenges his authority - which may open the door for others to challenge.

Moreover, the US had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border for several days, which conflicts with his claim his rebellion was a response to an attack on his camps by the Russian military.

Congressional leaders were briefed on the Wagner buildup earlier last week, a source familiar with the matter said.

The person was not authorised to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.

The US intelligence briefing was first reported by CNN.

The brief revolt exposed vulnerabilities among Russian government forces. Wagner Group soldiers were able to move unimpeded into the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and advance hundreds of kilometres towards Moscow.

The Russian military scrambled to defend the capital.

What is the Wagner Group?

The Wagner Group is a Russian private military company set up after a separatist conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Engaging private contractors in the fighting allowed Moscow to maintain a degree of deniability.

Wagner's missions have since broadened out to include operations into Libya, Syria and several African countries.

Wagner soon developed a reputation for brutality, with Western countries and UN experts accusing it of human rights abuses.

In 2021, the European Union said the group was responsible for “torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings”.

What is the view from Ukraine's leadership?

On Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that Prigozhin would go to neighbouring Belarus, which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though is not clear is he has arrived in the country.

Charges against him of mounting an armed rebellion would be dropped, Peskov added.

The government also said it would not prosecute Wagner fighters who took part, while those who did not join in were to be offered contracts by the Defence Ministry.

Prigozhin ordered his troops back to their field camps in Ukraine, where they have been fighting alongside Russian regular soldiers.

Putin had vowed earlier to punish those behind the armed uprising led by his onetime protege. In a televised speech to the nation, he called the rebellion a “betrayal” and “treason”.

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

In allowing Prigozhin and his forces to go free, Peskov said, Putin’s “highest goal” was “to avoid bloodshed and internal confrontation with unpredictable results”.

The risk for Putin is whether he will be seen as weak, analysts said.

“Putin has been diminished for all time by this affair,” former US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said on CNN.

Moscow had braced for the arrival of the Wagner forces by erecting checkpoints with armored vehicles and troops on the city’s southern edge.

About 3,000 Chechen soldiers were pulled from fighting in Ukraine and rushed there early on Saturday, state television in Chechnya claimed.

Russian troops armed with machine guns put up checkpoints on Moscow’s southern outskirts. Crews dug up sections of highways to slow the march.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner group military company, released video from the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don Credit: Prigozhin Press Service/AP

Wagner troops advanced to just 200 kilometres from Moscow, according to Prigozhin. But after the deal was struck, Prigozhin announced that he had decided to retreat to avoid “shedding Russian blood”.

Prigozhin had demanded the ouster of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom Prigohzhin has long criticised in withering terms for his conduct of the 16-month-long war in Ukraine.

On Friday, he accused forces under Shoigu’s command of attacking Wagner camps and killing “a huge number of our comrades".

If Putin were to agree to Shoigu’s ouster, it could be politically damaging for the president after he branded Prigozhin a backstabbing traitor.

In announcing the rebellion, Prigozhin accused Russian forces of attacking the Wagner camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery.

He alleged that General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, ordered the attacks following a meeting with Shoigu in which they decided to destroy the military contractor.

The Defence Ministry denied attacking the camps.

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

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

Early on Saturday, Prigozhin’s private army appeared to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city 660 miles south of Moscow, which runs Russian operations in Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said.

Russian media reported that several helicopters and a military communications plane were downed by Wagner troops. Russia’s Defence Ministry has not commented.

After the agreement de-escalated tensions, video from Rostov-on-Don posted on Russian messaging app channels showed people cheering Wagner troops as they departed.

Prigozhin was riding in an SUV followed by a large truck, and people greeted him and some ran to shake his hand. The regional governor later said that all of the troops had left the city.

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