Wagner mercenaries stand guard in Rostov-on-Don, the city they seized control of at the start of the coup – REUTERS

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian mercenary leader, turned his fighters back from a march on the Kremlin on Saturday after a truce was struck with Vladimir Putin.

Mutinous Wagner mercenaries marched to within 150 miles of Moscow in what the Russian president described as a treasonous “stab in the back” before they abruptly halted.

The stand-down came after Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, said he had brokered a last-minute truce to avoid a Russian civil war.

The key plank of the deal appeared to be the Kremlin dropping plans to abolish the Wagner military company.

“They were going to dismantle PMC Wagner. We came out on June 23 to the march of justice,” Prigozhin said in a voice message. “In a day, we walked to nearly 200 kilometres away from Moscow. In this time, we did not spill a single drop of blood of our fighters.

“Now, the moment has come when blood may spill. That’s why we are turning back our convoys and going back to field camps according to the plan.”   

The Russian president earlier vowed to crush an attempted coup that has proved the most serious crisis he has faced in 23 years in power.

Western leaders held an emergency consultation and said they were monitoring what was described as the biggest challenge to the Russian state in modern times.

moscow

Russian police officers, traffic police officers and servicemen block part of a highway entering Moscow – AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of heavily armed Wagner fighters crossed the border from occupied Ukraine and seized control of the southern Russian city of Rostov on Don in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Prigozhin, whose men have fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the Ukraine war, said he was leading a “march for justice” aimed at Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, with whom he has a long-standing public feud.

He said columns would make the 680-mile dash for Moscow if Mr Shoigu and Gen Gerasimov did not meet him.

But Putin called the uprising “a stab in the back” and vowed to crush his former ally.

Yevgeny Prigozhin

Yevgeny Prigozhin called his men back because he did not want to ‘spill Russian blood’

“We are fighting for the lives and security of our people, for our sovereignty and independence, for the right to remain Russia, a state with a thousand-year history,” he said in a televised address from the Kremlin on Saturday morning.

“All those who deliberately stepped on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed insurrection, who took the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, will answer both to the law and to our people.”

He said he had given “appropriate instructions” to security agencies.

Prigozhin hit back, saying “no one is going to surrender to the demands of the resident, the FSB or anyone else”.

“The president makes a deep mistake when he talks about treason. We are patriots of our motherland, we fought and are fighting for it,” he said in an audio message.

“We don’t want the country to continue to live in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”

The prospect of an armed insurrection in Russia sparked international alarm.

Rishi Sunak held a call with US president Joe Biden, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz to discuss the crisis.

“The leaders have agreed to stay in close contact in the coming days,” a spokesman said.

On Saturday afternoon James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, chaired a meeting of the Government’s Cobra emergency response committee “to update on the latest situation, particularly with respect to British nationals in Russia”.

Mr Biden was reported by CNN to be refraining from commenting on the uprising for fear of exacerbating Putin’s paranoia over Western-backed efforts to depose him.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, said the revolt showed Russia was failing. “Russia’s weakness is obvious. Full-scale weakness,” he said.

Mikhail Podolyak, a presidential advisor, said “everything is just beginning in Russia.”

The Ukrainian armed forces said they were continuing their slow-moving counter-offensive in the south of the country.

There were no immediate reports that Wagner’s stunt had affected the Russian army at the front. Initial Russian government attempts to intercept the rebel column failed.

russian soldiers

Russian service members move into positions following the armed mutiny by Wagner – REUTERS/Stringer

Wagner-aligned social media accounts claimed the rebels had shot down three Russian army helicopters and a jet aircraft that tried to attack the columns from the air.

In the afternoon, a Reuters correspondent saw a helicopter open fire on troops carriers and a flatbed truck carrying a tank as they passed the city of Voronezh, about halfway between Rostov and Moscow.

By evening, witnesses reported seeing the Wagner column near Tula, 140 miles south of the capital, and unconfirmed reports said they had crossed into the Moscow region.

Flight trackers showed at least two aircraft from the presidential fleet leaving Moscow and heading northwest, in the direction of St Petersburg.

The mayor of Moscow announced an “anti-terrorist operation” and told residents to stay at home as he warned of road closures.

“The situation is difficult. I ask you to refrain from travelling around the city as much as possible,” Sergei Sobyanin said in a statement. He said Monday would be a non-working day.

Wagner mercenaries are meant to fight alongside the regular Russian army in Ukraine, but tensions between the two have reached boiling point in recent months.

Prigozhin habitually belittles the army and has publicly accused Mr Shoigu of deliberately starving Wagner of ammunition so that it takes heavy casualties.

wagner truck

A local resident captures a truck transporting a Wagner military vehicle along the M-4 highway – REUTERS/Stringer

Regular army officers have complained that Wagner fighters abuse their men and steal equipment.

Last month, Wagner fighters in Ukraine kidnapped and beat up a Russian brigade commander who had clashed with the group.

The ministry of defence responded by ordering all private military companies to sign contracts that would effectively place them under army command by June 1.

Prigozhin refused to comply.

The apparent coup began to unfold late on Friday night when the Wagner leader claimed he was leading as many as 25,000 fighters across the border.

Residents of Rostov on Don reported being woken at around 4am by the sound of heavy vehicles driving through the streets.

Shortly afterwards Prigozhin released a video of himself inside the city’s military headquarters, which is also the main headquarters from which the war in Ukraine is managed.

Russia’s FSB Security Service immediately accused him of trying to start a “civil conflict” and called on Wagner fighters to detain him.

Russia’s regional governors and the head of the Russian Orthodox church pledged loyalty to Putin and condemned the revolt.

Dmitry Medvedev, the former president of Russia, said the “coup d’état” must not succeed in case “bandits get nuclear weapons”. Wagner has recruited extensively from prisons and Prigozhin is himself an ex-convict.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, said the uprising was unacceptable and that he was sending troops to suppress it.

“The rebellion must be put down, and if harsh measures are necessary, we are ready!” he said in a message.

Chechen units of the Russian army and national guard reached Rostov on Saturday evening. There were no immediate reports of clashes.

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