Within a remarkable day and a half, Russia faced the very real threat of an armed insurrection, with President Vladimir Putin vowing to punish Wagner fighters marching toward Moscow and occupying cities along the way - before a sudden deal with Belarus seemed to defuse the crisis as rapidly as it emerged, media reports said.
But much remains uncertain, with experts warning the rare uprising isn’t likely to disappear so quickly without consequences down the line, CNN reported.
Putin must now navigate the aftermath of the most serious challenge to his authority since he came to power in 2000, following a series of dizzying events that was closely - and nervously - watched by the world and cheered by Ukraine.
Outspoken Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is being sent to Belarus, apparently unscathed, but he may have painted a target on his own back like never before, CNN reported.
Prigozhin, the bombastic head of the Wagner group, agreed to leave Russia for neighbouring Belarus on Saturday, in a deal apparently brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Much remains unclear, such as what will happen to Prigozhin’s role within Wagner and the Ukraine war, and whether all his fighters will be contracted to Russia’s military.
The Wagner group is “an independent fighting company” with different conditions than the Russian military, said retired US Army Maj. Mike Lyons on Saturday. For instance, Wagner fighters are better fed than the military – meaning a full assimilation would be difficult, CNN reported.
The danger isn’t over for the Wagner boss, either, experts say.
“Putin doesn’t forgive traitors. Even if Putin says, ‘Prigozhin, you go to Belarus,’ he is still a traitor and I think Putin will never forgive that,” said Jill Dougherty, CNN’s former Moscow bureau chief and a longstanding expert on Russian affairs.
It’s possible we could see Prigozhin “get killed in Belarus,” she added – but it’s a tough dilemma for Moscow because as long as Prigozhin “has some type of support, he is a threat, regardless of where he is”, CNN reported.
Multiple experts told CNN that while the Russian president survived the stand-off, he now looks weak – not only to the world and his enemies, but to his own people and military. That could pose a risk if there are skeptics or rivals within Moscow who see an opportunity to undermine Putin’s position, CNN reported.
Steve Hall, a former CIA chief of Russia operations, said even seasoned Russia watchers were taken aback by recent events.
Hall said Prigozhin may have felt he had bitten off more than he could chew as his column of troops marched towards Moscow. But at the same time Putin faced the very real prospect of having to defeat some 25,000 Wagner mercenaries, CNN reported.
Sending Prigozhin to Belarus was a face saving move for both sides.
But Hall said Putin comes out ultimately worse off and weakened, CNN reported.