Putin Says Russia Is United Behind Him, After Ending Wagner Rebellion

A visibly angry Vladimir V. Putin on Monday denounced as “blackmail” a weekend rebellion by the Wagner mercenary group even as he defended his response to the mutiny and hinted at leniency for those who took part, saying that “the entire Russian society united” around his government.

Speaking publicly for the first time in two days, Mr. Putin, in an address broadcast on Monday night, refused to utter the name of the Wagner boss behind the insurrection, Yevgeny V. Prighozhin. But his contempt was clear for those who had seemed, briefly, to threaten civil war and upend Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces are mounting a counteroffensive.

“They wanted Russians to fight each other,” said Mr. Putin, Russia’s president. “They rubbed their hands, dreaming of taking revenge for their failures at the front and during the so-called counteroffensive.”

Throughout the day, the Kremlin had sought to project an air of normalcy, unity and stability, despite Mr. Putin’s absence from public view after perhaps the most serious crisis of his two-decade rule. When he finally emerged, the Russian leader skirted a host of unanswered questions left by the revolt. Instead, at the core of his five-minute speech on Monday was his insistence that he leads a nation and a government that present a united front to all threats.

“Civic solidarity has shown that any blackmail, attempts to create internal unrest, are doomed to failure,” he said.

The agreement that abruptly ended the mutiny on Saturday, with Wagner forces claiming that they had reached within 125 miles of Moscow, called for Mr. Prigozhin to go into exile in Belarus rather than face punishment, according to a Kremlin spokesman. Mr. Putin suggested that Wagner fighters who do not want to sign up with the regular Russian military may go there, too.

After his address, he was shown on television convening a meeting with his defense and interior ministers, prosecutor general, and chiefs of the security services and National Guard, to discuss how to respond to the episode.

Mr. Prighozhin, until recently a vital ally of Mr. Putin, said in an 11-minute, stream-of-consciousness voice memo posted on the messaging app Telegram on Monday that the government was trying to destroy Wagner, which he said would effectively have to disband by this coming Saturday.

“We went to demonstrate our protest, and not to overthrow the government in the country,” he said of the quixotic drive toward Moscow. But Kremlin officials have called it an act of treason, not protest.

In his audio message on Monday, Mr. Prigozhin renewed his sharp criticism of Russia’s military leaders for their handling of the invasion, and accused them again of attacking his fighters as they were preparing to give up their heavy weapons.

“The purpose of the campaign 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 during this process,” he said.

It was not clear where Mr. Prigozhin was, or how he would be handled by a system that criminalizes mere dissent, much less armed rebellion. The Kremlin statement over the weekend that he would be allowed to go into exile was contradicted on Monday by reports in multiple state-controlled news outlets that he still faced investigation and a very real possibility of prosecution.

Nor was it clear what would happen to his tens of thousands of fighters, some of Russia’s most experienced and ruthlessly effective troops, or how that would affect the war in Ukraine. The government has required that all irregular forces fighting for Russia in Ukraine sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1, spelling the end of Wagner’s semi-independence, but it is not clear how many have done so or will do so.

Mr. Putin indirectly addressed a question many people in Russia and abroad have been asking since the mutiny began: Why was it not crushed, swiftly and mercilessly, by Russia’s much larger military before Wagner could seize a regional military headquarters and push hundreds of miles toward Moscow?

“From the very beginning of the events, on my direct instructions, steps were taken to avoid a lot of bloodshed,” he said. “This took time, including to give those who made a mistake a chance to change their minds.”

Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov said that the major M-4 highway — which was damaged over the weekend as Russian forces tried to slow the advance of Wagner troops toward Moscow — had been repaired and that all air and railway communications had been restored. Moscow’s mayor ended the restrictions that had been put in place as a result of the uprising and announced that school graduation ceremonies would take place this weekend.

Reinforcing the business-as-usual message, Russia released a soundless video of Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu on Monday, signaling that he remained in his post despite scathing criticism by Mr. Prigozhin over the conduct of the war.

At the White House on Monday, President Biden said he had convened a video meeting with allied leaders to discuss the mutiny, adding: “We made clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it. This was part of a struggle within the Russian system.”

The administration has repeatedly signaled that it wanted Mr. Putin to, as Mr. Biden put it, have “no excuse to blame this on the West and to blame it on NATO,” which are supporting Ukraine with weapons, intelligence, training and finances.

On the battlefields of Ukraine, where Kyiv’s forces are mounting a counteroffensive to retake territory seized last year by Russia, there was no apparent change as a result of events within Russia, but some American officials and Western analysts said Russia’s military could suffer.

“Overall, Russian morale is likely to have been severely negatively affected by the turmoil,” said Aditya Pareek, an analyst at Janes, the defense intelligence firm.

But Franz-Stefan Gady, a consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said it was too early to gauge the mutiny’s impact. On the front lines, Russian rates of fire have not decreased, he said, and no major Russian troop rotations have been observed.

For months, Mr. Prigozhin, a former prison inmate who parlayed political connections into a multi-armed business empire, has aimed a stream of stinging criticism at Russia’s military establishment, while claiming that Wagner deserved sole credit for some successes in Ukraine. He accused military leaders of undermining the war effort with incompetence and infighting, while withholding needed supplies from Wagner. With a base of support among pro-war Russians, he was widely seen as laying the groundwork for some kind of political career.

But early this month, the Defense Ministry issued the directive that irregular forces sign up with the military, and the order remained in place, despite Mr. Prigozhin’s bitter complaints and refusal to comply — an apparent signal that Mr. Putin had sided with Mr. Shoigu and the generals.

On Friday, Mr. Prigozhin accused the regular military of shelling Wagner troops, killing dozens of them — a claim that has not been independently corroborated — and his forces drove on Rostov-on-Don, a major city in southern Russia, where Wagner seized control of a hub for military operations in Ukraine.

The world watched in shock and fear as instability seemed to shake the nation with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Mr. Putin on Saturday vowed the harshest punishment for those who had “consciously chosen the path of betrayal.”

But then the Wagner forces halted, after Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, a Putin ally and president of Belarus, played intermediary. Wagner forces withdrew from Rostov-on-Don and the highway to Moscow, reportedly returning to their camps in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.

Valerie Hopkins reported from Berlin. Reporting was contributed by Andrés R. Martínez in Seoul, Eric Schmitt in Washington, Ivan Nechepurenko in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Daniel Victor and Gabriela Sá Pessoa in New York.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *