For nearly 24 hours, millions of Ukrainians believed that the war with Russia might be nearing its conclusion. From 9pm on Friday, when Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin announced his march on Moscow, until 8pm on Saturday, when mercenary troops with their tanks and armoured vehicles were little more than 300km (180 miles) from the Russian capital, the battered country glimpsed the end of Putin’s regime.

Then, suddenly, when the Russian warlord called off his advance, the revived enthusiasm quickly ebbed away, giving way to disappointment and frustration, with many refusing to believe the Belarusian-brokered deal to end the armed uprising was real.

“I had positive feelings,” said Serhii, 27, from Kyiv. “There was hope at first, there was hope for a coup. Hope that it will all be over. Hope that there was going to be a change of power in Russia and a troop withdrawal from Ukraine. Then, suddenly that was it! End of the movie. Nothing happened … I felt so disappointed.”

On Saturday morning, after a night of air raid alarms sounding over at least five regions, Kyiv woke up to yet another missile barrage unleashed by Russia. At least five people were killed in the capital after the debris of a rocket, shot down by the Ukrainians, hit a building in the Solomyansk district. But the story that glued millions of people to their screens was the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, accusing Prigozhin of treason.

Young men look at their mobile phone screens
News of the Wagner mutiny is followed avidly on the streets of Kyiv on Saturday. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Ukraine has craved internal instability in Russia, in the hope that the political turmoil could somehow undermine Putin’s power and, as a result, end the war.

From Lviv in the west to the battered city of Kharkiv in the east, people expressed happiness with the Wagner mercenary group’s mutiny against Moscow and hoped the infighting would weaken Russian troops on the battlefield.

“We were so happy, and surprised,” said Valeriy, 59, a military student in Kyiv. “We were all following every single update on Telegram, trying to interpret every sign.”

One of the first to react to the news was Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who did not wait for his usual evening video message to comment on the Wagner insurrection: “Russia’s weakness is obvious,” he said. “Full-scale weakness. And the longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain and problems it will have for itself later.”

A few hours later, when a column of Wagner military vehicles, en route to Moscow, reached the Lipetsk region, about 360km from the capital, Ukrainians were mesmerised.

Telegram channels lit up with story after story suggesting the tide was turning. One claimed dozens of Russian units were withdrawing from the front to reach Russia and face the insurgency. Others said hundreds of soldiers were leaving the occupied territories to join the Wagner group. Another suggested Belarusian partisans were also preparing a coup to overthrow the Lukashenko regime.

It was difficult to say which of these currently unverifiable news stories was real or the result of renewed fervour, which suddenly, late in the evening and at the end of an extraordinary day, faded – the minute Russian state media announced that Prigozhin had ordered his troops back to their bases instead.

“What the hell was that?” said Vira, a 59-year-old teacher. ‘‘I was so confused. And today I’m still digesting yesterday’s events. I still can’t put the puzzle together. It’s quite difficult.’’

An adviser to the Ukrainian defence minister described the Wagner rebellion as “the most ridiculous attempt at mutiny” ever.

“This only makes Russia weaker and makes us stronger,” Yuriy Sak told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend.

However, even after the stand-down, the Russian turmoil offered a “window of opportunity” for Kyiv to turn Moscow’s internal chaos into an advantage on the battlefield. While Putin was forced to watch his back, Ukraine seemed to have stepped up its counteroffensive.

On Saturday afternoon, the Ukrainian military reported an offensive near the villages surrounding Bakhmut, taken by Wagner forces in May after months of fighting. In the evening, Oleksandr Tarnavsky, a Ukrainian commander, told the national news agency of Ukraine, Ukrinform, that its forces had liberated territories near the city of Krasnohorivka, in the Donetsk region, which had been occupied by pro-Russia separatists since 2014.

“Any chaos behind the enemy lines works in our interests,” Ukrinform quoted Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, as saying.

The sudden resumption of Ukrainian attacks was confirmed on Sunday by Russia’s defence ministry, which said it had repelled Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions, Russian news agencies reported.

“Over the past 24 hours, Ukraine’s armed forces have continued to attempt offensive action,” the Russian defence ministry said in a statement, adding that 10 attacks had been countered near Bakhmut alone.

Some analysts fear that a wounded Putin could become a more dangerous Putin. But in Kyiv, on Sunday morning, bathed in a fresh morning rain, the feeling is that something has changed.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a key adviser to Zelenskiy, said: “The situation inside Russia is uncontrollable. The flimsy structure is held together by inertia on a wing and a prayer.”

“Meanwhile,” he added, “forecasters predict new gusts of wind …”


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