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Wagner Group’s armored vehicles at the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don. June 24, 2023.

‘Don’t interfere with Wagner’ A rundown of what happened in Rostov-on-Don during Wagner’s day-long occupation

Source: Meduza
Wagner Group’s armored vehicles at the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don. June 24, 2023.
Wagner Group’s armored vehicles at the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don. June 24, 2023.
Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

On June 24, Wagner Group entered Rostov-on-Don and occupied the center of the city, apparently without a fight. Some residents headed to the center cheering for the mercenaries, while others tried to leave the city, creating backups on the highways and at the train station. Local police were conspicuously absent from the city while Wagner troops took selfies with residents and Prigozhin met with Russian officials at the Southern Military District headquarters. Local law enforcement later said they’d been told to wait for orders from Moscow. Here’s what we know so far about the short-lived occupation. 

In the wee hours of June 24, Wagner Group entered Rostov-on-Don apparently unopposed. The military cartel was operating under Yevgeny Prigozhin’s command — the previous day, Prigozhin had announced that his mercenaries would “deal” with Russian military leadership and the “lawlessness” in the country. 

Once in Rostov, Wagner fighters blocked off a few central neighborhoods, including Pushkin Street, where the Southern Military District headquarters are located. They parked military equipment on Pushkin Street and surrounding streets, including at least two tanks, one of which apparently became stuck in the gates of the Rostov circus. Later, Prigozhin met with Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Deputy Chief of Staff Vladimir Alexeyev at the Southern Military District headquarters. The talks had no apparent effect on Prigozhin’s plans to continue his “march of justice” toward Moscow.

Once regular business hours were set to start on June 24, it became clear that Wagner had effectively shut down the city. Rostov’s pharmacies, shops, and supermarkets closed; cafes and restaurants decided not to open. Postal services were closed in the city center. Schools canceled graduation ceremonies and universities canceled classes and exams.

Some Rostov residents heard about the closures from the local authorities; others heard it straight from Wagner fighters

The city administration never took counter-terrorism measures, unlike in Voronezh (which Wagner fighters passed through on their way to the capital), as well as in Moscow and the surrounding region. Rostov authorities did, however, request that residents stay home, but media reports from the region suggest that many did not heed the call for caution.

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Rostov residents told BBC News Russian that outside of the center, “the city was just like usual.” One resident told journalists that life was essentially unchanged in her neighborhood on the city’s outskirts, though she did notice some “light panic” in shops, with people loading up on toilet paper, tinned meat, and other essentials. 

Some residents tried to leave the city. Lines formed at the train station and there were traffic jams at the city’s exits. Other residents headed toward the city center, where they talked to Wagner mercenaries and took selfies with them and their equipment, despite President Vladimir Putin calling them traitors. Wagner mercenaries were pointedly good-natured toward residents, notes Radio Liberty. 

The majority of people who gathered in the center supported the mercenaries. Radio Liberty noted that many Rostov residents have friends and relatives in Wagner Group’s ranks. A few argued with the Wagnerites and demanded explanations regarding why they were in Rostov instead of “defending the motherland.” 

Toward midday, the situation in the center of the city had changed. Wagner fighters asked residents to get off the streets for their own safety. Soon, there were audible shots and explosions. By evening, Wagner had opened fire on the Rostelecom building in the city center. It’s still not clear what, exactly, happened there.

Prigozhin’s rebellion ended just as unexpectedly as it began. After reports emerged that Prigozhin had been in talks with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, the Wagner founder announced that his fighters “would turn the convoys around” and “head back to their field camps, according to plan.” Wagnerites then started to leave Rostov.

According to one publication, Wagner mercenaries fired shots in the air as they left the city, while residents saw them off chanting “Wagner!” “Rostov!” “Well done!”

Prigozhin himself was spotted in an SUV on one of the city’s main streets. He was greeted with shouts and applause, and a few people approached the vehicle to shake his hand. It’s not clear where Prigozhin is now. The Kremlin said that the criminal case Russian authorities opened against him had been rescinded and that Prigozhin himself “would be allowed to leave” Russia for Belarus. 

The scene as Wagner Group withdrew from Rostov-on-Don

Rostov spent Saturday waiting for Chechen fighters to arrive in the “zone of tension” after Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov announced he was sending his own troops to confront Prigozhin’s. Kadyrov’s fighters reportedly arrived in the region on the evening of June 24, but were sent to the front in Ukraine since Prigozhin had already called off the rebellion by that point. 

Local police officers appeared on the streets of Rostov only after Wagner started its withdrawal, reports publication A crowd met the officers in the city center, whistling and shouting “Traitors!” and “Shame!”

One source in law enforcement told the same publication that police took no action in the center on June 24 because they’d been sent to defend the city’s outskirts and to stop rebels from getting into Rostov. It’s unclear, in that case, how Wagner forces entered the city without a fight.

The same source said that security was also present at local police departments to prevent weapons rooms and warehouses from being captured. “Everyone was given the order from above — don’t interfere with Wagner in order to avoid spilling blood. Wait for a decision from Moscow,” he said. 

City officials say Wagner Group had damaged several roads in the city, especially near the Southern Military District headquarters, to the tune of millions of rubles. 

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