The armed rebellion led by Yevgeniy Prigozhin was brief. His Wagner mercenaries claimed to have seized the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District in a matter of hours and were marching toward Moscow in a stunning challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s power.
Less than 24 hours later, Wagner troops suddenly stood down, after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko brokered a deal between Prigozhin and Putin, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
As the crisis unfolded, videos and images shared on Russian social media captured the jarring atmosphere Saturday in Rostov-on-Don, just across the border from Ukraine. Some people went on with their daily lives, undisturbed by the heavily armed new arrivals. Others came to gawk, posing for selfies and treating Wagner’s presence as a cause for celebration.
Several videos show municipal workers — unmoved by the presence of troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers — sweeping away dust and cigarette butts. In one, filmed outside the headquarters of the Southern District command, a worker wearing a yellow vest hurriedly sweeps a street corner. In the background, a tank’s gun is raised and pointed at the building.
Another video captures a worker focusing on a pile of dirt while Wagner fighters block a road outside the military headquarters with armored vehicles in the background. The rhythm of gentle broom strokes remains constant.
The initial chaos gave way to a festive environment, with residents gathering in Rostov-on-Don’s center to ogle at the Russian mercenaries. Videos and images show supporters snapping selfies with the armed men, who flash the shaka hand gesture associated with Wagner as they maintain positions outside the military facility. A young woman wearing a pink gown poses in front of a Wagner tank in images shared on Russian-language Telegram channels. One video shows a man playing an accordion in the middle of a major thoroughfare.
Another video captures a quiet scene inside a supermarket. Masked Wagner fighters stand in line at the checkout counter, and two more armed men join the back of the queue, waiting behind civilian customers.
Outside a small kiosk, Wagner fighters order coffee, a rifle casually hanging in one soldier’s right hand. When they’re done, a civilian toting a backpack brushes past to place his order.
By nightfall, crowds grew as news spread of Wagner’s withdrawal. Peskov said Saturday that criminal charges against Prigozhin would be dropped despite Putin’s labeling of his actions as a “betrayal” and “treason,” and the mercenary is expected to go to Belarus. As Prigozhin left, photos showed jubilant people stopping by his vehicle for selfies. A grin on his face and a rifle resting between his legs, Prigozhin locked hands with one final well-wisher.