A domestic security crisis that threatened the government of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia appeared to ease late Saturday, when a mercenary tycoon, whose forces had seized critical military and civilian facilities in southern Russia and began an armed march on Moscow, abruptly stood down after cutting a deal mediated by Belarus that allowed him and his fighters to escape prosecution.
The mercenary leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who had brazenly seized control of the Southern Military District headquarters in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and stationed his fighters and tanks on the streets, demanding a change to the Russian military leadership, said his Wagner private military company had made it within 200 kilometers (about 124 miles) of Moscow, the capital, without injuring any of its fighters.
But he said the group had reached the point where Russian blood was about to be spilled “on one side.” And out of a sense of responsibility, he would turn his forces around and send them back to their field camps.
Many questions remained unanswered as the day ended in Moscow, but the outlines of a deal Mr. Prigozhin had negotiated with the leader of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, serving as a mediator, began to come into focus.
The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told reporters that under the agreement, Mr. Prigozhin would go to Belarus and the criminal case opened against him for organizing an armed insurrection would be dropped.
The Wagner fighters who did not participate in the uprising would be given the option of signing Russian Defense Ministry contracts, Mr. Peskov said, and the rest would avoid prosecution, considering their “heroic deeds on the front.”
“There was a higher goal — to avoid bloodshed, to avoid an internal confrontation, to avoid clashes with unpredictable consequences,” Mr. Peskov said. “It was in the name of these goals that Lukashenko’s mediation efforts were realized, and President Putin made the corresponding decisions.”
As for Mr. Prigozhin’s demands to end the “disgrace” of the Russian military leadership, the Kremlin spokesman said such personnel decisions were exclusively the domain of the Russian commander in chief and scarcely could be subject to such negotiations.
The announcement by the Kremlin capped a calamitous day that began with Mr. Prigozhin’s flaunting his brazen seizure of Russia’s Southern Military District headquarters and continued with an emergency televised national address by Mr. Putin, in which the Russian leader vowed to put down the armed mutiny and derided the Wagner fighters as traitors stabbing the motherland in the back.
Russia, Mr. Putin warned, risked spiraling anew into a tragedy akin to the Russian Civil War from 1917 to 1922, when “Russians were killing Russians and brothers were killing brothers.”
“We will not allow this to happen again,” he said. “We will protect our people and our statehood from any threats, including from internal betrayal.”
The Russian leader, who did not mention Mr. Prigozhin by name in his recorded remarks, said “inflated ambitions and personal interests” had led to treason, and he vowed the harshest punishment for anyone who had “consciously chosen the path of betrayal.”
He admitted that the situation in Rostov-on-Don, a city of about 1.1 million people, was difficult, saying: “In effect, the work of civil and military institutions has been blocked.”
The dramatic moves by Wagner — which for years did Mr. Putin’s shadowy geopolitical bidding in nations abroad and suffered profound losses on the battlefield in Ukraine before turning its sights on Russia itself — represented the biggest domestic blowback Mr. Putin had faced since launching his war in Ukraine last year.
For a brief moment, the group of fighters appeared to pose one of the gravest threats to the Russian president’s leadership since he took power more than 23 years ago, and showed the risk posed by armed formations operating outside of government control.
The head-spinning sequence of events that played out in less than 24 hours plunged a nation already struggling to wage the war in Ukraine into a full-blown domestic crisis, pitting a Russian president seeking to squelch domestic dissent against a former convict and caterer turned mercenary boss, who once helped a beleaguered Russia on the battlefield but eventually became a political liability for the Kremlin.
In the middle of the day on Saturday, with Mr. Prigozhin apparently in control of central Rostov-on-Don and initially refusing to back down, there appeared to be relatively few ways out of the crisis that would not involve clashes within Russia or risk a significant loss of lives.
Regional officials along the major M-4 highway linking Rostov-on-Don to Moscow, about 600 miles north, had said that convoys of military equipment were barreling north on the highway and urged local residents to stay away.
Videos verified by The New York Times showed signs of active fighting along the highway south of the city of Voronezh, including helicopters and a destroyed truck along the road, after reports that Wagner fighters had entered the Voronezh region, which is halfway between Rostov and Moscow.
“We’re blockading the city of Rostov and going to Moscow,” Mr. Prigozhin had said early in the day in the courtyard of the military headquarters.
The Russian Defense Ministry, addressing the Wagner fighters directly in a statement, told them they had been tricked into Mr. Prigozhin’s “criminal adventure” and would be guaranteed safety if they contacted the authorities.
Perhaps the most shocking scene of the day came when footage surfaced of Mr. Prigozhin in control of the Southern Military District headquarters, where he appeared to have two top Russian military officials surrounded by Wagner guards.
In the video, Mr. Prigozhin demanded to meet with Russia’s top military officer, Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, and the country’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, to end what he described as a “disgrace.”
“We came here,” Mr. Prigozhin says. “We want the chief of the general staff and Shoigu. So long as they are not here, we will be staying here.”
Throughout the video, Mr. Prigozhin sat casually between the two uncomfortable Russian officials — a deputy defense minister, Col. Gen. Yunus-bek Yevkurov, and a deputy military intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Alekseyev — as he criticized the Russian military’s poor leadership in Ukraine.
General Yevkurov asked Mr. Prigozhin to let the regular soldiers from the military district’s headquarters leave. “Absolutely not,” Mr. Prigozhin replied, before berating the general for killing fighters by “throwing them into a meat grinder” in Ukraine “without any ammunition, any thought or any plans.”
Mr. Prigozhin berated the general for showing disrespect by referring to him using the informal “you” in Russian, and said if the Russian military had been able to talk with his group in a normal tone, he wouldn’t have had to come
General Yevkurov later asked whether Mr. Prigozhin saw the actions he was taking as justified. “They’re absolutely correct,” Mr. Prigozhin said. “We are saving Russia.”
By the end of the day, Wagner fighters had maneuvered a tank out from where they had parked it between the gates of the Rostov-on-Don circus, and Mr. Prigozhin was photographed waving goodbye out the window of a vehicle.
The situation created by Mr. Prigozhin initially seemed like a dramatic denouement for a man who spent years in prison during the Soviet era but rose to riches after making inroads with Mr. Putin in St. Petersburg in the 1990s and winning government catering contracts.
Last year, he stepped into the spotlight as Wagner took on a greater role in prosecuting Moscow’s struggling war effort in Ukraine, eventually wresting control of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut amid staggering losses.
The situation led to a harsh rivalry between Mr. Prigozhin and top Russian military leaders that burst out into the open as he released expletive-laden public videos assailing them for incompetence.
The infighting between Mr. Prigozhin’s force and the Russian military for months appeared untenable, with the expectation that Mr. Putin would ultimately take action to curb the disunity. But then, nothing happened.
In audio recordings released late Friday night, Mr. Prigozhin suggested that Moscow had finally sided with the Russian military and accused the Defense Ministry of launching an attack against a Wagner camp in Ukraine, an accusation that the Russian authorities publicly rebutted.
A Telegram channel affiliated with Wagner on Saturday accused Mr. Putin of triggering the civil unrest himself by refusing to send “one or two degenerates into retirement” and siding with them over “the most battle-ready unit in Russia.”
After Mr. Prigozhin backed down, the Telegram channel, called APWagner, erupted in anger: “I am tearing up my contract.”
How exactly Mr. Prigozhin had planned to outmuscle Russia’s sprawling security services wasn’t clear.
By late Saturday, no units within the Russian military or police appeared to have defected to Wagner, and no prominent Russian officials had expressed open support for the mercenary group. Top officials across Russia released comments supporting Mr. Putin, making the Wagner boss appear isolated.
The popular pro-war Russian blogger Mikhail Zvinchuk, who writes on Telegram under the name Rybar, said that while he wasn’t whitewashing Mr. Prigozhin’s actions, the mercenary boss “gave voice to all those problems and weak links that it became unacceptable to discuss aloud.”
Mr. Zvinchuk noted that Mr. Putin not only ignored Mr. Prigozhin in his remarks, but also did not mention the defense minister or the chief of the general staff, “which says a lot.”
Considering there appeared to be some sort of agreement with Mr. Prigozhin, the question of whether there would be consequences for the Russian defense minister and top military officer remained, the blogger added.
Despite one of the most significant threats to Russian national security in years, neither had said anything all day.
Reporting was contributed by Anton Troianovski, Anatoly Kurmanaev, Valerie Hopkins and Neil MacFarquhar.