Putin Casts Mutiny as Proof of Solidity, as Belarus Opens Doors to Rebels

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Tuesday tried to recast the weekend rebellion by the mercenary chief Yevgeny V. Prigozhin as a heroic episode for a rock-solid Russian state, while neighboring Belarus said Mr. Prigozhin had gone into exile there, and signaled that it would be open to taking in his battle-hardened troops, as well.

Russia’s domestic intelligence agency said it was dropping its criminal investigation of Mr. Prigozhin, who drove fighters from his Wagner group toward Moscow before standing down on Saturday, and the Defense Ministry said that Wagner was preparing to hand over its heavy equipment to the military.

But even as the Kremlin projected an air of control and stability, top officials made clear that the fallout was not finished, signaling that it might root out people who were tied to the mercenary leader or who were insufficiently steadfast in support of Mr. Putin during the crisis.

In a televised meeting with military service members in Moscow, Mr. Putin suggested that Mr. Prigozhin — whose name he has refused to utter publicly in recent days — or people linked to him might be guilty of graft. He said that Mr. Prigozhin, a catering magnate, had made roughly $1 billion from military catering contracts in the past year, and that the government had spent another $1 billion supporting the Wagner forces who have been brutally effective in fighting for Russia in Ukraine.

“I want everyone to know this: The support for the Wagner group was completely provided by the state,” Mr. Putin said, before concluding with a warning: “I hope that in the course of this work, no one stole anything — or, let’s say, didn’t steal much — but we will certainly get to the bottom of this.”

It continued a shift in the opaque power dynamics of Russia’s ruling elite, where cronyism and corruption can offer a tolerated path to influence and riches — unless the people involved run afoul of those at the top. What the president did not acknowledge was that Mr. Prigozhin rose to prominence and wealth based primarily on his longtime former closeness to Mr. Putin, himself.

The chairman of Russia’s lower house of Parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, directed lawmakers to determine which government officials had fled Moscow during the rebellion and declared that “this should be punished.”

In a grandly choreographed and televised outdoor appearance at the Kremlin, Mr. Putin descended a long, red-carpeted staircase and delivered a speech from a stage on the medieval-era Cathedral Square, which was followed by a gun salute and music from a military band. He paid tribute to the troops and security forces who he said had shown “determination and courage” in defending Moscow on Saturday as Wagner forces advanced to within 125 miles of the capital.

“Some of our comrades in arms died in the confrontation with the mutineers,” he said. “Airmen. They did not flinch, and, with honor, carried out their order and their military duty.”

Mr. Putin’s busy day before the television cameras showed that the Kremlin was intent on taking control of the public narrative after Russia’s inability to prevent a rebel force from seizing a major city and advancing hundreds of miles toward Moscow stunned the world. Wagner’s capture of Rostov-on-Don and march on the capital seemed to threaten civil war — and possibly disaster for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine — until it ended abruptly on Saturday.

President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus said that in a phone call on Saturday, Mr. Putin, his close ally, raised the option of simply killing Mr. Prigozhin, but that he had convinced the Russian president “not to do anything rash.” His version of the conversation could not be verified independently, and the Kremlin did not immediately comment on it.

Mr. Lukashenko played intermediary in the deal that halted the rebellion and offered asylum to Mr. Prigozhin, with the promise that he would not be prosecuted by Russia.

A Russian-registered jet that has been linked to the Wagner boss flew on Tuesday from Russia to Belarus, according to flight tracking websites, and Belarus’s state news service said he had arrived in the country. There was no confirmation from Mr. Prigozhin himself.

Speaking at a ceremony honoring military officers in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, Mr. Lukashenko said he had discussed with his defense minister, Viktor G. Khrenin, the possibility of welcoming Wagner fighters to his country. “Khrenin said, ‘It would not bother me to have such a unit in the army,’” Mr. Lukashenko said. He added that he had replied, “I agree. Talk to them.”

He said he had offered Wagner an “abandoned” military base, but stressed that no camps were being built specially for the mercenary group. His comments were recorded and broadcast by Belarusian state media.

The status of Wagner troops in Ukraine, whose numbers Mr. Prigozhin has estimated at 25,000, appeared to be at the heart of his break with the Kremlin. For months he has accused the military hierarchy, particularly Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, of incompetence in the war against Ukraine, and of depriving Wagner of needed resources.

Mr. Prigozhin said on Monday that he never meant to overthrow the government, but suggested that he had aimed to oust military leaders like Mr. Shoigu. His short-lived uprising, he said, “was to prevent the destruction of Wagner and to bring to justice those persons who, by their unprofessional actions, made a huge number of mistakes.”

Last month, the government ordered that all irregular forces fighting in Ukraine sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1, this coming Saturday, stripping Wagner of its independence. Mr. Prigozhin protested bitterly that his force was being destroyed and said most of his troops would not sign, but Mr. Putin backed the order, definitively siding with the ministry in the power struggle.

Mr. Shoigu has been featured prominently in state media news coverage over the last two days, in what appeared to be a show of stability and a vote of confidence. He was seen at Mr. Putin’s speech on Tuesday, at a meeting with Mr. Putin on Monday and in a video released on Monday showing the defense minister visiting military positions, apparently days earlier.

Mr. Lukashenko on Tuesday offered his first public insight into how the uprising ended, presenting himself as a central figure in the drama, along with some veiled criticism of all involved, including Mr. Putin.

He spoke with Mr. Putin at 10:10 a.m. on Saturday, he said, and they discussed the possibility of killing the Wagner chief. He said he had urged caution, and had assured the Russian leader that “a bad peace is better than any war.”

Later, he said, he spoke with Mr. Prigozhin, trying to persuade him to stand down and warning him that the Russians would “squash him like a bug.”

“It was exceptional,” he said of the conversation with Mr. Prigozhin. “There were 10 times more swear words — I later analyzed — than normal vocabulary.”

Mr. Lukashenko appeared to acknowledge that the tension between Mr. Shoigu and Mr. Prigozhin had been allowed to spiral out of control. “Two people who fought at the front collided,” he said.

The Belarusian leader said that neither he, Mr. Putin nor Mr. Prigozhin had emerged as “heroes” from the weekend upheaval — they had “missed the situation, and then we thought that it would resolve, but it did not resolve.”

“It was painful to watch the events that took place in the south of Russia,” he added. “Not only for me. Many of our citizens took them to heart because the Fatherland is one.”

Mr. Lukashenko has managed to hold onto power for 29 years, but at a cost. Belarus has increasingly become a repressive vassal state of Russia, treated as a pariah by the West and dependent on Moscow for support. He got Kremlin backing in 2020, when he violently crushed a democracy movement challenging his claim to a landslide re-election win. In 2022 he let Mr. Putin use Belarus’s territory as a staging ground for his invasion of Ukraine, and he recently allowed Russia to station tactical nuclear weapons in his country.

He was motivated to intervene in the Wagner mutiny, Mr. Lukashenko said bluntly, because “if Russia collapses, we will remain under the rubble — we will all die.”

Like Mr. Lukashenko, Viktor V. Zolotov, the head of Russia’s national guard, may have come out ahead in the power struggle. He told reporters after Mr. Putin’s speech that he was “constantly in touch with the president” during the rebellion and that his troops were ready to “fight to the death” to defend Moscow.

Mr. Zolotov, a former bodyguard to Mr. Putin, said he had already discussed with the president the need to provide his force — which is separate from the military — with “tanks and long-range heavy weaponry.”

“This is a very urgent question right now,” he said, according to the Tass state news agency. “We will introduce this into the forces.”

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