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The Wagner group retreated from its 'march on justice' in Russia, ending the rebellion

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We've been through one of the most extraordinary days since Russia decided to invade Ukraine over a year ago. A Russian mercenary force, essentially a private army, fell out with the Defense Ministry. It then launched a march on Moscow. They were branded as traitors by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it all looked to be leading towards a civil war until it wasn't. All of this posed the most profound challenge to Putin's leadership in years. NPR's Charles Maynes was following all of this from Moscow and joins us on the line. Good morning, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: So, Charles, I mean, a dizzying, confusing 24 hours. Take us through the key events.

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, one commentator called it the shortest civil war in the history of Russia, and I think there's something to that. At its core, this uprising was about festering tensions between Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russia's top brass over the conduct of the war in Ukraine. But things escalated really quickly Friday night when Prigozhin accused the defense minister of ordering a lethal strike on Wagner forces, although it's not entirely clear if that really happened. Either way, Wagner seized a key military facility and, in fact, later the entire city of Rostov-on-Don in Russia's south in response. Then authorities launched sedition charges against Prigozhin. President Putin issued an emergency address to the nation, which he made clear he saw Prigozhin as a traitor and told Wagner to stand down.

RASCOE: But Prigozhin refused - right? - like, insisting that Wagner would lead a, quote, "march for justice" to Moscow to remove the defense minister.

MAYNES: That's right. You know, and they were nearly at the outskirts of the city before Prigozhin then announced he would stop the advance to avoid bloodshed. Now, it later turned out there was a compromise that had been negotiated not by the Kremlin but by its ally and junior partner, the leader of Belarus. And finally, we learned from the Kremlin that Prigozhin has agreed to leave Russia for Belarus, and in exchange, no charges will be filed against Prigozhin or any of his men who participated in this rebellion. And indeed, Wagner started the pullout late last night, and it continues this morning.

RASCOE: So is Prigozhin the loser out of this scenario?

MAYNES: You know, I think the answer for the moment is no. But we'll have to see. You know, this insurrection, this seizure of a major city and Prigozhin's march, more or less uncontested, to the capital once again is played to this narrative that Wagner has pushed throughout the war in Ukraine, and that's that its fighters are far superior to the Russian army - you know, better equipped and of course, better led by Prigozhin - also worth noting that it was Prigozhin who took the decision to stand down, appearing to ignore direct orders and threats issued by the Russian president. And even this compromise deal - you know, this Kremlin agreement not to prosecute Prigozhin - appears to show, as he has throughout the war, that Prigozhin can get away with transgressions that would clearly send others to lengthy prison sentences. Now, it's true that Prigozhin is retreating and it seems has been exiled to Belarus. And given the humiliation he inflicted on the Defense Ministry and arguably on Putin, who looked ineffectual through all this, you have to wonder what the future holds, maybe for all of them.

RASCOE: Yes. I mean, what about the Ministry of Defense?

MAYNES: Well, that's another aspect. You know, we haven't heard anything from the defense minister or his chief of staff. Yesterday as all this unfolded, they appeared ineffective. They hardly took - like, they hardly look like winners in all of this. There's a lot of chatter online here and to the degree that I could talk with people as the rebellion was unfolding, and it really amounted to this version of, OK, you know, Prigozhin chose the wrong way to handle it, but on some level, he's not wrong. You know, something had to be done to shake things up. And there's a growing perception, even inside Russia, that the Defense Ministry has mismanaged what they call their special military operation in Ukraine, and Prigozhin, you know, through months of online politicking and a media machine that pushes the Wagner brand, has positioned himself as the antidote. You know, just listen to the scenes out of Rostov-on-Don last night.

(APPLAUSE)

MAYNES: So even as Wagner and Prigozhin pulled out of Rostov, you can hear, you know, they got a hero's sendoff.

RASCOE: Wow. In the 30 seconds we have left, can you tell us how Prigozhin's apparent exit impacts the Russian war effort?

MAYNES: Well, you know, under this agreement struck last night, Wagner has essentially been disbanded. The Kremlin spokesman said members who didn't participate in the uprising would now be folded into the ranks of the army. And while that means a more unified command structure, it also means Russia appears to lose its most effective ground force at a moment when Ukraine is launching its counteroffensive and the Kremlin might need them most.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you so much.

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

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.

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