The rebel Wagner mercenary force threatened to march on Moscow on Saturday, June 24, before announcing a stunning pull-back, as Kyiv seized on the chaos to launch new assaults against Russian positions in Ukraine.
The Wagner private army captured a key military headquarters in southern Russia, and sent a force north to threaten the capital, defying Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin's warning of civil war.
But amid Russia's most serious security crisis in decades, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin delivered a surprise announcement, saying his troops were turning back to avoid bloodshed in the Russian capital.
"We are turning our columns around and going back to field camps," Prigozhin announced after previously vowing to march on Moscow to topple the military leadership.
He said understood the importance of the moment and did not want to "spill Russian blood."
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said he had negotiated a truce with Prigozhin "on stopping the movement of armed individuals from the Wagner group on Russian territory and further steps on deescalating tensions."
Kyiv revelled in the chaos, as Putin's former mercenary ally Prigozhin turned his Wagner force away from the offensive against Ukraine and made threats to topple the chiefs of Russia's military.
"The man from the Kremlin is obviously very scared and is probably hiding somewhere," Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his daily address, adding that Putin has "created this threat himself."
Separately, Ukraine's deputy defense minister Hanna Malyar announced that Ukrainian forces had gained more ground in the eastern region of the Donbas, launching new counteroffensives in several areas.
Putin's spokesman insisted the Russian leader was still at work in the Kremlin and had not fled Moscow.
- Russian blood -
Before Prigozhin's apparent climbdown, Russian regular forces had launched what one regional governor called a "counter-terrorist operation" to halt the Wagner advance northwards up a main highway towards Moscow.
The governor of the Lipetsk region, whose capital is just 420 kilometres (260 miles) south of Moscow, said Wagner's private military force was "moving across" the territory and urged civilians not to leave their homes.
In the capital, the mayor urged Muscovites to stay indoors and declared Monday a day off work.
"The situation is difficult. I ask you to refrain from travelling around the city as much as possible," Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said in a statement, warning of possible road closures.
Prigozhin said his troops had taken control of the military command center and airbase in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, the nerve center of Russia's offensive in Ukraine.
"We got to Rostov. Without a single shot we captured the HQ building," he said, claiming that local civilians had welcomed the operation and vowing to overthrow Russia's military command.
"Why does the country support us? Because we went on a march of justice," he said, claiming his men had not killed any soldiers despite having been hit with strikes from army "artillery and after that from helicopters".
Responding to the challenge in a televized address, Putin accused Prigozhin -- whose private army provided shock troops for Moscow's offensive in Ukraine -- of a "stab in the back" that posed a threat to Russia's very survival.
- 'Harsh measures' -
"Any internal turmoil is a deadly threat to our statehood and to us as a nation. This is a blow to Russia and to our people," Putin said, demanding national unity.
"Extravagant ambitions and personal interests led to treason," Putin said, referring to Prigozhin, who began building his powerbase as a catering contractor.
"All those who consciously stood on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed rebellion, stood on the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, before the law and before our people," Putin vowed.
Another Putin ally, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, declared that he had dispatched his own units to help quash the Wagner rebellion, warning: "The rebellion must be put down, and if harsh measures are necessary, we are ready!"
Latvia announced that it was tightening security on its Russian border and would not admit refugees fleeing the chaos.
- 'Civil conflict' -
After Putin's speech accusing him of treason, Prigozhin launched a second broadside.
"On treason of the motherland: the president is deeply wrong. We are patriots of our motherland," Prigozhin said. "Nobody plans to turn themselves in at the request of the president, the FSB or anyone else."
Armed Wagner fighters deployed around administrative buildings in Rostov and tanks had been seen in the city center.
As the insurrection force headed north through Voronezh and Lipetsk towards Moscow, the capital's mayor announced that "anti-terrorist" measures were being taken.
Critical facilities were "under reinforced protection", TASS reported, citing a law enforcement source.
While Prigozhin's outfit fought at the forefront of Russia's offensive in Ukraine, in recent months it has engaged in a bitter feud with Moscow's military leadership.
He has repeatedly blamed Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, for his fighters' deaths.
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