Israel issues advisory warning against travel to Russia after mercenary group rebels

PM, diplomats to discuss developments as Wagner Group leader abruptly announces halt of advance on Moscow

The Spasskaya Tower is seen through metal barriers at Moscow's Red Square on June 24, 2023. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP)
The Spasskaya Tower is seen through metal barriers at Moscow's Red Square on June 24, 2023. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP)

The Foreign Ministry issued a travel advisory against travel to Russia Saturday evening, as Vladimir Putin’s regime faced a mutiny by the mercenary Wagner Group.

A ministry notice advised Israelis “to weigh the necessity” of traveling to Russia and urged those in the country “to weigh the essentiality” of remaining in the country. It also called on those in Russia to avoid “hotspots.”

Shortly after the advisory went out, Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin ordered his troops to halt their advance and return to their bases. It was not immediately clear whether this would affect the Israeli position, amid the ongoing uncertainty.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council were set to hold meetings Saturday evening on developments in Russia. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant also held a preliminary assessment with top security officials.

The Foreign Ministry was planning to send additional consular officials to Moscow and St. Petersburg in the coming days due to an expected rise in requests for travel documents.

In a statement Saturday evening, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said he had spoken to Israel’s Ambassador to Moscow Alex Ben Zvi and that “we are preparing for all scenarios.”

Channel 12 news noted that issuing the travel advisory was sensitive for Jerusalem, which has sought to navigate between the desire to offer some support for Ukraine amid the ongoing Russian invasion while maintaining ties with Moscow.

Israel’s need to carry out airstrikes on Iranian-linked targets in neighboring Syria, where there is a Russian military presence, and the need to protect the large Jewish community in Russia, have been cited as the primary reasons for the Israeli stance on the fighting in Ukraine.

Some 70,000 Israeli citizens are believed to currently be in Russia, along with some 500,000 Jews and those eligible to immigrate to Israel.

Rebel mercenaries advanced north towards Moscow after seizing a key military base Saturday, just as Kremlin chief Putin vowed to defeat the revolt and head off the threat of civil war.

Members of Wagner Group sit atop a tank in a street in the city of Rostov-on-Don, on June 24, 2023. (Roman Romokhov/AFP)

The rapidly escalating events marked the most serious challenge yet to the Russian president’s rule — and Russia’s most serious security crisis since the strongman came to power in late 1999.

But by evening Prigozhin said he had ordered his mercenaries to halt their march on Moscow and retreat to their field camps in Ukraine to avoid shedding Russian blood.

Moscow had braced for the arrival of a private army led by the rebellious mercenary commander by erecting checkpoints with armored vehicles and troops on its southern edge. Red Square was shut down, and the mayor urged motorists to stay off some roads.

Ukrainian leaders, meanwhile, reveled in the outbreak of in-fighting among its Russian foes, with a deputy defense minister describing it as a “window of opportunity” for Kyiv’s latest counteroffensive to rid its territory of Russian forces.

Prigozhin said that while his men were just 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Moscow, he decided to turn them back to avoid “shedding Russian blood.”

He didn’t say whether Moscow has responded to his demand to oust Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.

The announcement followed a statement from the office of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko saying that he had negotiated a deal with Prigozhin after discussing the issue with Putin. Prigozhin agreed to halt the advance in a proposed settlement that contains security guarantees for Wagner troops, Lukashenko’s office said. It didn’t elaborate.

Putin had 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.”

Authorities declared a “counterterrorist regime” in the capital and its surrounding region, enhancing security and restricting some movement.

On the southern outskirts, troops erected checkpoints, arranged sandbags and set up machine guns.

A local resident speaks with a member of Wagner Group in Rostov-on-Don, on June 24, 2023. (Denis Romanov/AFP)

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin warned that traffic could be restricted in parts of the capital and declared Monday a non-working day for most residents.

Crews dug up sections of highways to slow the march of the Wagner mercenary army. Access to Red Square was closed, two major museums were evacuated and a park was shut.

Prigozhin’s private army appeared to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city 660 miles (over 1,000 kilometers) south of Moscow that runs Russian operations in Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.

Prigozhin said earlier Saturday that his fighters would not surrender, as “we do not want the country to live on in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”

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