Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday blasted organizers of a weekend revolt, the gravest threat yet to his power, as "traitors" who played into the hands of Ukraine’s government and its allies.
Speaking in a stern tone and looking tired in a five-minute TV address near midnight, Putin sought to project stability. He tried to strike a balance between criticizing the uprising’s perpetrators to prevent another crisis, and not antagonizing the bulk of the mercenaries and their hardline supporters, some of whom are incensed at the Kremlin’s handling of the situation.
Putin, whose troops are stretched thin in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, praised the rank and file mercenaries for not letting the situation descend into "major bloodshed." And he said the nation had stood united, although there had been localized signs of support for the uprising.
Earlier in the day, the head of the mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led the rebellion, defended his short-lived insurrection. He again taunted Russia’s military, but said he hadn’t been seeking to stage a coup against Putin. On Friday, Prigozhin had called for an armed rebellion to oust the military leadership.
Head of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin left the Southern Military District headquarters on June 24, 2023 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Putin’s address was announced by his spokesman in advance and billed by Russian state media as something that would "define the fate of Russia." In fact, the address didn’t yield groundbreaking developments.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst, called the address weak. In a Facebook post, he said it was a sign that Putin is "acutely dissatisfied with how he looked in this whole story and is trying to correct the situation."
The Kremlin later showed Putin meeting with top security, law enforcement and military officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom the uprising had tried to remove. Putin thanked members of his team for their work over the weekend, implying support for the embattled Shoigu. Earlier, the authorities released a video of Shoigu reviewing troops in Ukraine.
Putin, who declined to name Prigozhin, said mutiny organizers had tried to force the group’s soldiers "to shoot their own."
He said "Russia’s enemies" had hoped the mutiny would divide and weaken Russia, "but they miscalculated."
Western officials have been muted in their public comments on the mutiny, and President Joe Biden said Monday that the U.S. and NATO were not involved. Speaking at the White House, Biden said he was cautious about speaking publicly because he wanted to give "Putin no excuse to blame this on the West and blame this on NATO."
"We made clear that we were not involved, we had nothing to do with it," he said.
Prigozhin said he had been acting to prevent the destruction of Wagner, his private military company. "We started our march because of an injustice," he said in an 11-minute statement Monday, giving no details about where he was or what his plans were.
The injustice apparently was a government order requiring Wagner soldiers, if they want to remain fighting, to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1, which might effectively disband the group despite its battlefield successes in Ukraine. Prigozhin also accused Russia's military of attacking his troops, prompting his march.
The feud between the Wagner Group leader and military brass has festered throughout the war, erupting into mutiny when mercenaries left Ukraine to seize a military headquarters in the southern Russia city of Rostov. They rolled seemingly unopposed for hundreds of miles toward Moscow before turning around after less than 24 hours on Saturday.
The Kremlin said it had made a deal for Prigozhin to move to Belarus and receive amnesty, along with his soldiers. There was no confirmation of his whereabouts Monday.
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (R) attend a ceremony, marking the Day of Remembrance and Sorrow, June 22, 2023 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)
Prigozhin boasted that his march was a "master class" on how Russia's military should have carried out the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. He also mocked the military for security breaches that allowed Wagner to march 780 kilometers (500 miles) toward Moscow without facing resistance.
It remained unclear what would ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces under the deal purportedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Prigozhin said Lukashenko proposed finding a way to let Wagner "continue its work in a lawful jurisdiction." That suggested Prigozhin might keep his military force, although it wasn’t clear which jurisdiction he was referring to.
Though the mutiny was brief, it was not bloodless. Russian media reported that several military helicopters and a communications plane were shot down by Wagner forces, killing at least 15. Prigozhin expressed regret for attacking the aircraft but said they were bombing his convoys.
Russian media reported that a criminal case against Prigozhin hasn’t been closed, despite earlier Kremlin statements, and some Russian lawmakers called for his head. In his address Monday, Putin didn't repeat threats he had made Saturday to punish the mutiny's leaders.
Andrei Gurulev, a retired general and current lawmaker who has clashed with the mercenary leader, said Prigozhin and his right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin, deserve "a bullet in the head."
And Nikita Yurefev, a city council member in St. Petersburg, said he filed a request with Russia's Prosecutor General's Office and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, asking who would be punished for the rebellion.
Russian media reported that Wagner offices in several Russian cities had reopened on Monday and the company had resumed enlisting recruits.
In a return to at least superficial normality, Moscow’s mayor announced an end to the "counterterrorism regime" imposed on the capital Saturday, when troops and armored vehicles set up checkpoints on the outskirts and authorities tore up roads leading into the city.
For months, Prigozhin had blasted Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov with expletive-ridden insults, accusing them of failing to provide his troops with enough ammunition during the fight for the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.
Prigozhin said most of his fighters refused to come under the Defense Ministry’s command. He said Wagner had planned to hand over the military equipment it was using in Ukraine on June 30 after pulling out of Ukraine and gathering in Rostov, but they were attacked.
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said on Twitter that Prigozhin’s mutiny "wasn’t a bid for power or an attempt to overtake the Kremlin," but a desperate move amid his escalating rift with the military leadership.
While Prigozhin could get out of the crisis alive, he doesn’t have a political future in Russia under Putin, Stanovaya said.
It was unclear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for the war in Ukraine, where Western officials say Russia’s troops suffer low morale. Wagner's forces were key to Russia's only land victory in months, in Bakhmut.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense said Monday that Ukraine had "gained impetus" in its push around Bakhmut, making progress north and south of the town. Ukrainian forces claimed to have retaken Rivnopil, a village in southeast Ukraine that has seen heavy fighting.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday after visiting troops in the war-torn Donetsk region that his military had advanced there as well as in Zaporizhzhia. "Today, our warriors have advanced in all directions, and this is a happy day," he said in his nightly address, without providing details.
The events of the weekend show the war is "cracking Russia's political system," said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
"The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now," Borrell said. "The monster is acting against his creator."
Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels and Jill Lawless in London contributed.