Within a remarkable day and a half, Russia faced the very real threat of an armed insurrection, with President Vladimir Putin vowing to punish Wagner fighters marching toward Moscow and occupying cities along the way – before a sudden deal with Belarus seemed to defuse the crisis as rapidly as it emerged.
But much remains uncertain, with experts warning the rare uprising isn’t likely to disappear so quickly without consequences down the line.
Putin must now navigate the aftermath of the most serious challenge to his authority since he came to power in 2000, following a series of dizzying events that was closely – and nervously – watched by the world and cheered by Ukraine.
Outspoken Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is being sent to Belarus, apparently unscathed, but he may have painted a target on his own back like never before.
Here’s what we know.
Prigozhin, the bombastic head of the Wagner group, agreed to leave Russia for neighboring Belarus on Saturday, in a deal apparently brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The deal includes Prigozhin pulling back his troops from their march toward the capital, said a Kremlin spokesperson on Saturday.
The criminal charges against him will be dropped, said the spokesperson. Wagner fighters will face no legal action for their part in the insurrection, and will instead sign contracts with Russia’s Ministry of Defense – a move Prigozhin had previously rejected as an attempt to bring his paramilitary force in line.
Wagner troops previously claimed they had seized key military facilities in two Russian cities; by Saturday, videos authenticated and geolocated by CNN showed Prigozhin and his forces withdrawing from one of those cities, Rostov-on-Don.
It’s not clear where Prigozhin is now. The Kremlin is unaware of his whereabouts, the spokesperson said Saturday.
The crisis in Russia erupted Friday when Prigozhin accused Russia’s military of attacking a Wagner camp and killing his men – and vowed to retaliate by force.
Prigozhin then led his troops into Rostov-on-Don and claimed to have taken control of key military facilities in the Voronezh region, where there was an apparent clash between Wagner units and Russian forces.
Prigozhin claimed it wasn’t a coup but a “march of justice.” But that did little to appease Moscow, with a top security official calling Prigozhin’s actions a “staged coup d’état,” according to Russian state media.
Russia’s Defense Ministry denied attacking Wagner’s troops, and Russia’s internal security force opened a criminal case against Prigozhin.
Then came a remarkable national address from Putin.
In a speech that was broadcast across Russia on Saturday morning local time, a visibly furious Putin vowed to punish those “on a path to treason.”
Wagner’s “betrayal” was a “stab in the back of our country and our people,” he said, likening the group’s actions to the 1917 Russian Revolution that toppled Tsar Nicholas II in the midst of WWI.
Things were tense on the ground, with civilians in Voronezh told to stay home. Meanwhile, Moscow stepped up its security measures across the capital, declaring Monday a non-workday. Photos show Russian forces in body armor and wielding automatic weapons near a highway outside Moscow.
All signs pointed to an impending armed confrontation in the capital as rumors and uncertainty swirled.
Then almost as suddenly as it began, the short-lived mutiny fizzled out with the Belarus deal seeming putting out the fire – at least for now.
Much remains unclear, such as what will happen to Prigozhin’s role within Wagner and the Ukraine war, and whether all his fighters will be contracted to Russia’s military.
The Kremlin spokesperson said on Saturday he “cannot answer” what position Prigozhin will take in Belarus. Prigozhin himself has provided little detail about his agreement to halt the advance on Moscow.
The Wagner group is “an independent fighting company” with different conditions than the Russian military, said retired US Army Maj. Mike Lyons on Saturday. For instance, Wagner fighters are better fed than the military – meaning a full assimilation would be difficult.
“Maybe some will splinter off,” he added. “Those people are loyal to the man, Prigozhin, not to the country, not to the mission. I think we’ve got a lot more questions that are not answered right now.”
Chaos in Russia: A throwback to previous centuries?
The danger isn’t over for the Wagner boss, either, experts say.
“Putin doesn’t forgive traitors. Even if Putin says, ‘Prigozhin, you go to Belarus,’ he is still a traitor and I think Putin will never forgive that,” said Jill Dougherty, CNN’s former Moscow bureau chief and a longstanding expert on Russian affairs.
It’s possible we could see Prigozhin “get killed in Belarus,” she added – but it’s a tough dilemma for Moscow because as long as Prigozhin “has some type of support, he is a threat, regardless of where he is.”
Putin now faces real problems, too.
Multiple experts told CNN that while the Russian president survived the stand-off, he now looks weak – not only to the world and his enemies, but to his own people and military. That could pose a risk if there are skeptics or rivals within Moscow who see an opportunity to undermine Putin’s position.
“If I were Putin, I would be worried about those people on the streets of Rostov cheering the Wagner people as they leave,” said Dougherty.
One video, geolocated and verified by CNN, showed crowds cheering as Prigozhin’s vehicle departed Rostov-on-Don. The vehicle stopped when one individual approached and shook Prigozhin’s hand.
“Why are average Russians on the street cheering people who just tried to carry out a coup?” Dougherty said. “That means that maybe they support them or they like them. Whatever it is, it’s really bad news for Putin.”
Video shows Prigozhin leaving Russian military headquarters
Prigozhin has known Putin since the 1990s, and was nicknamed “Putin’s chef” after winning lucrative catering contracts with the Kremlin. But Russian-backed separatist movements in Ukraine in 2014 set the foundation for Prigozhin’s transformation into a warlord.
Prigozhin founded Wagner to be a shadowy mercenary outfit that fought both in eastern Ukraine and, increasingly, for Russian-backed causes around the world.
Wagner was thrust into the spotlight during the Ukraine war, with the fighters appearing to win tangible progress where regular Russian troops failed. However, its brutal tactics are believed to have caused high numbers of casualties.
As the war dragged on, Prigozhin and Russia’s military leadership have engaged in a public feud, with the Wagner boss accusing the military of not giving his forces ammunition and bemoaning the lack of battlefield successes by regular military units.
He was repeatedly critical of their handling of the conflict, casting himself as ruthless and competent in comparison.
Prigozhin was always careful to direct his blame towards Russia’s military leadership, not Putin, and had defended the reasoning for the war in Ukraine.
That was, until Friday as the insurrection kicked off.
In a remarkable statement, Prigozhin said Moscow invaded Ukraine under false pretenses devised by the Russian Ministry of Defense, and that Russia was actually losing ground on the battlefield.
Steve Hall, a former CIA chief of Russia operations, said even seasoned Russia watchers were taken aback by recent events.
“Everybody is scratching their heads,” he told CNN. “The only sense I can make from a day like today, you have two guys who found themselves in untenable situations and had to find their way out.”
Hall said Prigozhin may have felt he had bitten off more than he could chew as his column of troops marched towards Moscow. But at the same time Putin faced the very real prospect of having to defeat some 25,000 Wagner mercenaries.
Sending Prigozhin to Belarus was a face saving move for both sides.
But Hall said Putin comes out ultimately worse off and weakened.
“Putin should have seen it coming literally months ago. We’ll see how it ends up. I don’t think the story is over yet,” Hall said.