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Russia tries to show Prigozhin’s Wagner “rebellion” over with Shoigu back in command of Ukraine war

Emily Jones 291 June 26, 2023

There was uneasy calm Monday as Russian state TV tried to present an image of business-as-usual in President Vladimir Putin's ongoing war in neighboring Ukraine. But Putin's strongman image undoubtedly looked weaker after a brief but remarkable challenge to his authority over the weekend, with his longtime associate, Wagner mercenary group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, staging an apparent rebellion and threatening to march all the way to Moscow.

A U.S. official told CBS News on Monday that Washington thought the mutiny would be "very bloody, very violent, but it was not."

Tension had been growing between Prigozhin and Russia's top military officials for weeks, with the businessman lambasting senior generals as inept, at best, and even treasonous in his regular videotaped rants posted to social media. But on Saturday, his war of words against Russia's top brass exploded into a mutiny.

U.S. officials confirmed to CBS News that members of Prigozhin's private army were on the move Saturday morning toward Moscow, and the Wagner boss himself made it clear that his primary targets were Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

Wagner troops managed to quickly seize control of the southwest city of Rostov-on-Don, home of the headquarters of Russia's Southern Military Command, which has orchestrated the country's war in Ukraine, without a fight.

On Russian state TV, Putin attacked the Wagner chief's actions as a "stab in the back" and vowed to quash the "rebellion."

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia John Sullivan says Putin-Wagner truce is "evidence of weakness" of Putin 06:34

But as Wagner troops inched closer to Moscow, just hours after Prigozhin declared his uprising against Russia's military leadership in typically vague terms in a series of social media videos, he said he'd accepted an agreement brokered by Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, to turn his men around and halt the insurrection.

Prigozhin may have had 10,000 troops with him in his mutiny and a much smaller number advancing on Moscow, the U.S. official told CBS News on Monday.

Under the conditions of the agreement, which the Kremlin never confirmed but Prigozhin and Lukashenko's office discussed in statements, the Wagner troops would be pardoned and return to their bases to continue fighting the war in Ukraine on behalf of Russia, and criminal charges against Prigozhin would be dropped and he'd remain in exile in Belarus.

As he left Rostov in a vehicle convoy, residents gave Prigozhin and his failed mutineers a hero's send-off. Prigozhin even smiled and posed for selfies with residents on his way out.

Wagnerâs head Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves Southern Military District in Rostov
Head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is seen leaving the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty

On Monday, Russian authorities appeared eager to put the apparent putsch behind them and show things were getting back to normal. While authorities said the criminal case that was launched against Prigozhin on Saturday hadn't been dropped, at least not yet, state TV aired video of Shoigu appearing calm and in full control of the Russian forces he commands.

But it was unclear when the video of the minister of defense meeting troops, which was aired without sound, was actually shot, and there was no mention on state media of Gerasimov's whereabouts.

There was no sign of changes at the Russian Ministry of Defense as of Monday, the U.S. official told CBS News.

The Kremlin said nothing about any senior personnel changes, apart from describing such decisions as the personal responsibility of Putin alone.

Prigozhin issued a new video statement on Monday, meanwhile, defining his actions as "a protest" and insisting his goal was "not to overthrow the government in the country." He said his motivation was to prevent the forced breakup of the Wagner Group, which he said had been decided upon by Russian leaders "as a result of intrigues and ill-considered decisions."

"We felt that demonstrating what we wanted to do was enough," said Prigozhin, again attempting to explain why he had halted his forces' advance toward Moscow.

Prigozhin remains in charge of the Wagner Group, and his troops have returned to their bases in Ukraine, the U.S. official told CBS News on Monday.

Ukraine launches strikes amid Wagner would-be mutiny 03:19

Amid what appeared to be the most significant challenge to date to the Russian leader's authority, however, Ukrainian soldiers took advantage of the chaos across the border to push their ongoing counteroffensive against the invasion, with troops clearing more Russian trenches near the town of Bakhmut.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation" that the situation in Russia was an "unfolding story," predicting that the world had not yet "seen the last act" from Prigozhin or Wagner.

"We're watching it very closely and carefully," Blinken said, adding that he couldn't get into where Prigozhin was located, but that it was something U.S. intelligence agencies were "tracking."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says "we haven't seen the last act yet" in Russia's Wagner rebellion 08:42

A CBS News investigation revealed earlier this year that the Wagner Group was funding its war machine in Ukraine — and likely lining pockets back in Russia — in part by plundering the natural resources of nations across Africa, often at the invitation of undemocratic leaders on the continent. 

"What we have learnt from investigating and analyzing Wagner in Africa in the past five years is that the group is resilient, creative, fearless and predatory, so it is less likely that the Wagner empire will instantly fall like a house of cards," Nathalia Dukhan, an expert on Wagner and senior investigator at The Sentry, told CBS News on Monday.

Russia’s Wagner Group accused of a massacre hidden from the world 05:01

"No one can really predict what will happen tomorrow or in a few months," said Dukhan, calling the situation "extremely volatile."

But she noted that "when the war in Ukraine broke out and Russia pulled Wagner mercenaries out of the Central African Republic and other countries to support Putin's invasion, many expected it would mean the end of Wagner prospects in Africa. Instead, we documented Wagner's mutation into an even more aggressive, predatory, and deadly monster that has been expanding its campaigns of terror, gaining an even stronger hold" in Africa.

CBS News' David Martin at the Pentagon, Justine Redman in Dnipro, Ukraine, and Sarah Carter in Johannesburg, South Africa, contributed to this report.

Ian Lee

Ian Lee is a CBS News correspondent based in London, where he reports for CBS News, CBS Newspath and CBS News Streaming Network. Lee, who joined CBS News in March 2019, is a multi-award-winning journalist, whose work covering major international stories has earned him some of journalism's top honors, including an Emmy, Peabody and the Investigative Reporters and Editors' Tom Renner award.