Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the private army of mercenaries and prison inmates that participated in some of the bloodiest battles during Russia's invasion of Ukraine, arrived in Belarus on Tuesday after escaping prosecution for his failed armed uprising against the Kremlin.
The agreement that put an end to the brief mutiny in Russia included the exile of the 62-year-old Wagner Group owner. Mr. Prigozhin was in Belarus, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed, and he and some of his troops were welcome to stay "for some time" at their own expense.
Since Saturday, when he waved to onlookers from a moving vehicle in the southern city of Rostov, Mr. Prigozhin has not been seen. On Monday, he released a defiant audio statement. And according to information from FlightRadar24, a private aircraft thought to be his took off from Rostov on Tuesday morning and landed at an air base southwest of Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
According to Mr. Prigozhin, there are 25,000 Wagner's troops fighting in Ukraine, and Moscow claimed that preparations were being made for them to hand over their heavy weapons to Russian forces. Before a deadline of July 1 for his fighters to sign contracts—which he disagreed with—to serve under Russia's military command, Mr. Prigozhin had claimed that such actions were prepared.
Additionally, Russian authorities stated on Tuesday that they have concluded their criminal investigation into the uprising and are not accusing Mr. Prigozhin or his supporters of engaging in an armed insurrection.
However, Vladimir Putin of Russia seems to have prepared the ground for allegations of financial wrongdoing against a related company that Mr. Prigozhin owns. Mr. Putin revealed to a group of military personnel that Mr. Prigozhin's Concord Group had received 80 billion rubles ($1.24 billion) from a contract to supply food to the military and that Wagner had received more than 86 billion rubles ($1.3 billion) in the previous year for wages and other expenses.
Mr. Putin said, "I hope that while doing so they didn't steal anything, or stole not so much," adding that officials would closely examine Concord's contract.
With the Russian government, Mr. Prigozhin has long had lucrative catering contracts. According to media reports the Wagner CEO confirmed, police who searched his St. Petersburg office on Saturday claimed they discovered four billion rubles ($61 million) in trucks outside. He claimed that the cash was meant to pay the families of the soldiers.
Less than 24 hours after it started and shortly after Mr. Putin spoke on national television, calling the rebellion's leaders—whom he did not name—traitors—the uprising was put an end by Mr. Prigozhin and his fighters on Saturday.
The charge of mounting an armed mutiny carried a maximum 20-year prison sentence. In stark contrast to Moscow's treatment of its opponents, including those organizing anti-government protests in Russia, many opposition figures have been sentenced to lengthy terms in notoriously harsh penal colonies. Mr. Prigozhin's escape from prosecution, at least on an accusation of armed rebellion, is a rare instance of freedom from prosecution.
Some of the Wagner fighters, according to Mr. Lukashenko, are currently in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, which Russia illegitimately annexed last September.
The shocking developments of the past few days pose the greatest threat to Mr. Putin's hold on power to date because they took place during the 16-month conflict in Ukraine. On Tuesday, he reiterated the threat by stating that a civil war might have been the outcome.
Mr. Putin has tried to project stability and exercise authority in his speeches this week.
In a Kremlin ceremony on Tuesday, the president thanked soldiers and law enforcement officials for their efforts to quell the uprising as he descended the red-carpeted stairs of the white-stone Palace of Facets, built in the 15th century.
In yet another display of "business as usual," Russian media showed Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu greeting the visiting Defense Minister of Cuba in military garb. According to Mr. Prigozhin, his objective was to remove Mr. Shoigu and other military leaders, not to carry out a coup against Mr. Putin.
The uprising was portrayed by Mr. Lukashenko as the most recent development in the conflict between Mr. Prigozhin and Mr. Shoigu. Mr. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 29 years while relying on Russian assistance and subsidies. He claimed that while the mutiny was taking place, he put Belarus's armed forces on a combat footing and pleaded with Mr. Putin not to act hastily lest the situation gets out of hand.
He claimed to have warned Mr. Prigozhin that if he attempted to attack Moscow, he would be "squashed like a bug" and that the Kremlin would never accede to his demands.
The Belarusian president similarly to Mr. Putin portrayed the conflict in Ukraine as a threat to humanity's existence, declaring that "if Russia collapses, we all will perish under the debris."
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, refused to provide specifics about the agreement the Kremlin had with Mr. Prigozhin, only stating that Mr. Putin had given "certain guarantees" to prevent a "worst-case scenario."
When asked why the rebels were able to approach Moscow at a distance of about 200 kilometers without encountering significant resistance, Viktor Zolotov, the head of the National Guard, responded, "We concentrated our forces in one fist closer to Moscow. They would have come like a knife through butter if we had spread them out.
Mr. Zolotov, a former bodyguard for Mr. Putin, also declared that the National Guard would soon acquire the heavy weapons and battle tanks it lacks.
According to Russian news reports, the mercenaries attacked Moscow while shooting down at least six Russian helicopters and a military communications plane, killing at least 12 airmen. Although the Defence Ministry withheld information regarding casualties, Mr. Putin observed a moment of silence on Tuesday in their honor.
He said, "Pilots, our combat comrades, died while fending off the mutiny." They carried out the directives and their military duty honorably without faltering.
Some war bloggers and patriotic activists in Russia have expressed their outrage over Mr. Prigozhin and his troops' lack of punishment for the airmen's deaths.
In his statement on Monday, Mr. Prigozhin expressed regret for the fatalities but claimed Wagner troops opened fire because the planes were bombing them.
In his televised speech on Monday night, Mr. Putin claimed that the rebel leaders had made life easier for the Ukrainian government and its allies. However, he commended the common mutineers who "didn't engage in fratricidal bloodshed and stopped on the brink."
That was "likely to retain" the Wagner fighters in Ukraine, where Moscow needs "trained and effective manpower" as it prepares for a Ukrainian counteroffensive, according to a Washington-based think tank.
The Institute for the Study of War also stated that Belarus' apparent haven for the Wagner chief and his allies could be a trap because the rift between Mr. Putin and Mr. Prigozhin is probably too deep to mend.
Mr. Putin has given Mr. Prigozhin's fighters the option of joining the Russian military, disengaging from duty, or traveling to Belarus.
Even though prisoners Wagner recruited in Russia have been suspected of committing violent crimes, Mr. Lukashenko claimed there is no reason to be concerned about Wagner's presence there. He said that the military expertise and knowledge the Wagner troops acquired were "priceless" to Belarus.
Wagner troops, however, will threaten the nation and its neighbors, according to exiled Belarusian Opposition Leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Mr. Lukashenko in a 2020 election that was widely regarded as fraudulent and precipitated widespread protests.
She told the Associated Press, "War criminal Prigozhin is not welcome in Belarus." "Our sovereignty and those of our neighbors will face a new threat if Wagner establishes military bases on our territory."
The war in Ukraine continued to claim lives while attention was directed toward the fallout from the Russian uprising, as evidenced by what U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink called "terrible scenes from another brutal attack."
At least four people, including a child, were killed and about 40 others were injured when Russian missiles struck Kramatorsk and a nearby village in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region, according to reports. Other victims were reportedly buried under building rubble, including a café.