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Wagner chief aborts march on Moscow

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In less than 24 hours, Russia has seen the threat of armed mutiny rise and, just as quickly, fall away, at least for now. It started with Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin venting his anger on the Russian military establishment for its handling of Ukraine - then a full-scale mobilization of his mercenary troops and a threatened march on Moscow. Overnight, they did take control of the southern Russian city Rostov-on-Don, which woke up to the sound of armored vehicles rumbling through the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES DRIVING)

DETROW: In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an emergency address to the nation, promising tough action against those involved, calling their actions a stab in the back. But just as quickly, the march on Moscow was halted, and Prigozhin announced his troops would return to base. Tonight, Moscow is in a state of alert, and that's where NPR's Charles Maynes joins us from. Charles, good evening.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good evening.

DETROW: A lot to talk about here. Let's start with what we know about what changed Prigozhin's mind. Why did he back down?

MAYNES: You know, Scott, as your intro suggests, this has been a really wild 24 hours. In the latest audio message posted to his social media account, Yevgeny Prigozhin noted that in that period, you know, his mercenaries had marched from southern Russia all the way to the gates of Moscow, only to have a change of heart. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here, Prigozhin claims that this whole time, not a drop of Wagner blood had been shed. But as his forces were closing in on the capital, he said that he could no longer guarantee that would be the case. And so he was ordering his troops to turn around and go back to base. And since then, we've heard that Prigozhin's Wagner forces are, in fact, pulling out of Rostov-on-Don as well, just as quickly as they entered.

DETROW: How has Putin reacted, and how has the Kremlin as a whole reacted?

MAYNES: Well, this morning, President Putin made clear, without ever saying Prigozhin's name, that he saw Prigozhin as a traitor who would pay a serious price for this rebellion, this stab in the back reference that you noted in your intro. And the federal security services, the FSB here, launched a criminal case against the Wagner leader for inciting a mutiny. And yet it now appears that Putin, too, has had a change of heart in that the Kremlin appears to have gotten an assist from a surprise guest in this story. That's Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko's press office said with Kremlin permission, the Belarussian leader had offered his services as a mediator in this. And in a series of calls with Prigozhin throughout the day, Lukashenko finally got him to agree to stand down. Now, in turn, the Kremlin says these criminal charges against Prigozhin will be dropped. And Prigozhin is moving - get this - to Belarus. And finally, the Kremlin says it won't be punishing Wagner fighters who took part in this mutiny out of an account of their military service for Russia in Ukraine. In other words, all appears forgiven.

DETROW: All appears forgiven is usually not - is not the way that Vladimir Putin operates. So I guess going forward, does this really signal the end of Prigozhin's political career in Russian politics?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, Prigozhin is a creature, really, of Putin's own making. He started off as someone that Putin tasked with running unsavory errands for the Kremlin, you know, things like troll farms and running shadow war operations in Syria, only to emerge as a public figure and, with it, certainly what looked like political ambitions, particularly as he adopted this populist persona of giving kind of straight talk about the war in Ukraine.

You know, setting Prigozhin out to pasture in Belarus would seem a way to remove him as a political headache or possible rival for the Kremlin going forward. Yet even if Prigozhin is departing Russia for Belarus, it doesn't resolve these larger problems that caused this crisis to begin with. You know, we still have Wagner fighters angry over the way the war is being conducted. If anything, that's gone from a subject of, you know, internet intrigue into being something out in the open.

We're also left with Prigozhin's now-public charge that the generals sold Putin and the country on the invasion of Ukraine under false pretenses, claiming an imminent attack by Ukraine that just wasn't happening. That charge is just left to fester. And even if Prigozhin recedes in the background, he's effectively humiliated the defense ministry for everyone to see.

DETROW: What has it been like to be in Moscow over the past two days?

MAYNES: You know, all day, we've had these reports of authorities, you know, barricading the highways to the south of the city, you know, with armored vehicles, all in preparation for this Wagner convoy. Yet as I walked around the city today, in the city center, you know, Moscow felt strangely normal. You know, there were people out in parks and cafes. It's Saturday in the summer, so, you know, it's nice weather. Yet on the few occasions I did notice someone glued to their phone, you got the feeling they were reading the news. And the one word I kept hearing was bardak. That's Russian for chaos.

DETROW: That's a good word for it. NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow - thank you so much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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