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Private Mercenary Force Takes Over Russian City, Threatening Possible Civil War

The Wagner Group, a private army with a history of human rights violations, is reportedly moving troops toward Moscow.

Members of the Wagner Group stand on the balcony of the circus building in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023.

Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin left Rostov-on-Don, Russia late Saturday after announcing abruptly that he had called off his forces’ march to Moscow and ordered them to leave the southern city, a key strategic location in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Prigozhin agreed to leave Russia and go to Belarus under a deal reportedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whose government is strongly allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Belarus has allowed Russian troops to station there since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and Putin said earlier this month that Russia has begun deploying “tactical” nuclear weapons in the former Soviet state.

Under the deal, Prigozhin and his forces will not face charges for taking over military facilities in Rostov-on-Don on Saturday, which Putin had said amounted to treason.

Earlier:

Ukrainian officials on Saturday said the takeover of a key strategic Russian city by the Wagner Group, a private mercenary force with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was a sign of a burgeoning civil war in the country that invaded Ukraine 16 months ago.

The group’s seizure of military facilities in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia was a sign of Putin’s “weakness,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as many in his country kept a close watch on the chaos unfolding in the country whose invasion has killed more than 9,000 civilians, injured more than 15,000, and forced more than six million people to flee Ukraine.

“Anyone who chooses the path of evil destroys himself,” said Zelenskyy on social media. “Sends columns of soldiers to destroy the lives of another country — and cannot stop them from fleeing and betraying when life resists… [Putin] despises people and throws hundreds of thousands into the war — in order to eventually barricade himself in the Moscow region from those whom he himself armed.”

“Russia’s weakness is obvious,” Zelenskyy added. “Full-scale weakness. And the longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain, and problems it will have for itself later.”

The Wagner Group is headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a member of the Russian elite who in the past secured lucrative construction and catering contracts from the government, the latter of which earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.” He was one of 13 Russians indicted by a federal grand jury in the United States in 2018 for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Prigozhin’s mercenary army first began exerting influence during Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and has since been deployed to further Russian interests in countries including Syria, Libya, Central African Republic, Sudan, and Mozambique.

“There’s a trend or pattern around what happens when Wagner is involved in an armed conflict,” Sorcha MacLeod, chair of the United Nations Working Group on mercenary groups, told The New York Times last year. “The conflict is prolonged, involves heavy weaponry, civilians are impacted in a substantial way, human rights violations and war crimes increase substantially, and there’s no access to justice for victims.”

Prigozhin has in recent months rebuked the military leadership of Putin’s war on Ukraine, saying generals have not provided his forces with enough resources.

On Friday he accused Putin’s military of attacking his fighters’ encampments and called the Ukraine invasion a “racket” before announcing that the Wagner Group had taken control of Rostov-on-Don.

The Times verified footage showing Prigozhin entering a military complex in the city.

The mercenary group was headed toward Moscow on Saturday as Russian officials accused Prigozhin of attempting to mount a coup against Putin. The state news agency, TASS, reported that the Russian prosecutor general had charged Prigozhin with armed mutiny.

Putin accused Prigozhin of treason in an address to Russians and said he “will do everything to defend the country.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, said the turmoil between Putin and the Wagner Group signifies that “the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive finally destabilized the Russian elites, intensifying the internal split that arose after the defeat in Ukraine.”

“Today we are actually witnessing the beginning of a civil war,” he said.

The Wagner Group’s actions are “a sign of the collapse of the ruling regime,” Ukrainian military intelligence spokesperson Andriy Yusov told Suspilne, Ukraine’s state news agency, “and such processes will intensify.”

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