Canada pledged to keep a close eye on tensions in Russia on Saturday as armed rebel mercenaries marched on Moscow before their commander said they were halting their advance.
Global Affairs, which had warned Canadians against all travel to Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, said Saturday that “there is a risk of further unrest across the country.”
Security restrictions “including limitations on movement have been put in place in some regions, including in Moscow,” it said in a travel advisory.
The warnings came as Moscow braced for the arrival of rebellious forces from the Wagner Group, a private army led by Yevgeny Prigozhin that has been fighting alongside regular Russian troops in Ukraine.
But Prigozhin announced that while his troops were just 200 kilometers from Moscow, he decided to turn them back to avoid “shedding Russian blood.”
Prigozhin will move to neighboring Belarus as part of a deal to defuse tensions stemming from the rebellion and the criminal case against him will be closed, the Kremlin said Saturday.
Wagner troops who joined him in the uprising will not face prosecution and those who did not will be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov added.
After inking the deal, Prigozhin said he was ordering his troops to halt their march on Moscow and retreat to field camps in Ukraine.
The deal appeared to defuse a dramatically escalating crisis that represented the most significant challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades in power.
It was mediated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a staunch Putin ally. Prigozhin did not say whether the Kremlin had responded to his demand to oust Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Canada’s incident response group planned to meet on Saturday to discuss the latest developments in Russia, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a morning tweet released before the deal was announced.
“We’re in contact with our allies and will continue to monitor the situation closely,” it read.
A tweet earlier in the day from foreign affairs minister Mélanie Joly said the G7 foreign ministers held a call to discuss the situation, but offered no further details.
The U.S. State Department and German Foreign Ministry also released little information on the talks, which included the European Union’s foreign policy chief. But the State Department reaffirmed the country’s support for Ukraine and said it will stay in coordination with allies.
Putin had earlier vowed harsh consequences for organizers of the armed uprising led by his onetime protege, who brought his forces out of Ukraine, seized a key military facility in southern Russia and advanced toward Moscow.
In a televised speech to the nation, Putin called the rebellion a “betrayal” and “treason.”
“All those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment,” Putin said. “The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what concessions, if any, Putin may have made to persuade Prigozhin to halt his march.
Prigozhin has been outspoken for months in his criticisms against Russia’s military leaders, accusing them of not providing enough munitions in the key battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut.
But these tensions escalated ahead of the weekend, when an accusation Friday by Prigozhin against Russia’s defence minister provoked the country’s top counterterrorism organization to launch a criminal inquiry against the mercenary leader and call for his arrest.
As of Saturday morning, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said Prigozhin’s Wagner group appeared to control military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, the southern city more than 1,000 kilometres from Moscow where Russia’s operations in Ukraine are run. Prigozhin also posted video of himself at the military headquarters there and claimed his forces had taken control of the airfield and other military facilities in the city.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned the West on Saturday against trying to take advantage of the rebellion, saying the Russian public stands behind Putin.
However, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said the “political crisis” in Russia may provide Ukraine with a “window of opportunity” amid the war that’s raged between the two countries since February 2022.
Hanna Maliar wrote on Telegram that Russia’s war against Ukraine has brought about “the inevitable degradation of the Russian state.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, also speaking on Telegram, said the rebellion within Russia betrays the country’s “full-scale weakness.”
“Russia’s weakness is obvious,” he said. “And the longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain and problems it will have for itself later. This is also obvious.”
The CEO and executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress issued an emailed statement on Saturday saying Russia’s war efforts continue despite the turmoil closer to home.
“Now is the time for Canada and allies to provide Ukraine all the weapons needed to defeat Russia,” said Ihor Michalchyshyn. “Give the Ukrainians what they need to win and they will win.”
Rosa Saba and Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2023.
— With files from The Associated Press