Putin slams ‘traitors’ as Prigozhin claims mercenary rebellion was only a ‘protest’

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin have both broken their silence, after the paramilitary group’s short-lived and chaotic insurrection at the weekend threw the country into uncertainty, in what the Russian leader described as a betrayal of the country.

In a brief address to the nation on Monday, Putin said Wagner fighters made the “right decision” by halting their advance, adding that the “armed rebellion would have been suppressed anyway.”

Those forces would now have the opportunity to sign a contract with Russia’s Ministry of Defense “or other law enforcement agencies, or to return to your family and friends,” he said. He added that fighters could also opt to go to Belarus, where Prigozhin is also expected to go to per a deal apparently brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Putin did not mention Prigozhin by name, but he accused “the organizers of the rebellion” of “betraying their country, their people, (and) also betrayed those who were drawn into the crime.”

“They lied to them, pushed them to death, under fire, to shoot at their own. It was precisely this outcome – fratricide – that Russia’s enemies wanted,” he said in the five-minute speech, which appeared to be pre-recorded from inside the Kremlin, according to Russian state media TASS.

The address came soon after Prigozhin made his own comments, saying that the canceled uprising had been a protest, rather than a real attempt to topple the government.

“The purpose of the march was to prevent the destruction of PMC Wagner and to bring to justice those who, through their unprofessional actions, made a huge number of mistakes during the special military operation,” Prigozhin said in an audio message, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Troops from his private military group seized control of a military base and moved in convoy towards Russia’s capital on Saturday in a remarkable and unexpected challenge to Putin. The march was suddenly called off when Lukashenko’s deal was struck.

Wagner’s march toward Moscow not only marked a drastic escalation in Prigozhin’s long-running feud with Russia’s Defense Ministry, but left an air of uncertainty and more questions for Putin, who is recovering from one of the gravest challenges to his authority in decades.

Questions also remain on Prigozhin’s whereabouts and the future of Russia’s war with Ukraine, in which Wagner played a crucial role.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s Presidential Administration, mocked Putin’s address on Monday, insinuating that the short speech didn’t seem to determine the “future of Russia” as the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reportedly said it would.

“A truly ‘epochal’ address that ‘determines the future of Russia.’ He [Putin] voluntarily put an end to his own subjectivity. Doubts are finally dispelled. #Russia is waiting for… the new president…,” Podolyak said in a tweet.

A protest?

Prigozhin also claimed Monday that Russia’s Defense Ministry had planned for Wagner to “cease to exist” from July 1 and further defended his group’s actions.

“Overnight, we have walked 780 kilometers (480 miles), 200-something kilometers (125 miles) were left to Moscow,” Prigozhin claimed in his Monday message, despite no evidence that Wagner forces made it that close to the Russian capital. 

“Not a single soldier on the ground was killed,” Prigozhin added. “We regret that we were forced to strikes on aircraft,” he said. “…but these aircraft dropped bombs and launched missile strikes.”

Belarusian President Lukashenko “extended his hand” and offered to find solutions to further the work of the Wagner Group in a legal way, Prigozhin said, mirroring the line that Minsk and the Kremlin has communicated about why the march – which for several hours appeared to be an armed insurrection on the Russian state – suddenly ended.

Prigozhin claimed that residents of Russian towns “were all happy [to see us]” adding that “many of them still write us words of support and some are disappointed that we stopped, because in the march of justice, in addition to our struggle for existence, they saw support for the fight against bureaucracy and other ills that exist in our country today.”

But videos posted to social media show a more nuanced picture.

Wagner forces were met with some cheering in Rostov-on-Don, where on Saturday, local people were taking photos with Wagner fighters, chatting with them, and jubilantly climbing their equipment.

But many of those videos show Russians cheering only after the announcement of the apparent deal brokered by Lukashenko. Videos of the Wagner convoy en route to Moscow only show it sitting on the roadside, and traveling through cities in apparent attempts to bypass blockades and roadblocks – there were no crowds or people that greeted them.

Unclear future

The future role of Prigozhin or his Wagner group remains unclear. The unit has been increasingly essential to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.

The investigation into the criminal case involving Prigozhin and his alleged involvement in organizing an armed mutiny is still active, Russian state news agency TASS said Monday, citing a source close to the Prosecutor General’s Office.

On Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had told journalists a deal had been reached with Prigozhin and the charges against him for calling for “an armed rebellion” would be dropped, without providing a time frame.

“We stopped at the moment when the detachment, which had approached Moscow, deployed its artillery, made a reconnaissance of the area, and it was obvious that at that moment a lot of blood would be shed. We felt that demonstrating what we were going to do was sufficient,” Prigozhin said Monday.

Prigozhin had previously accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov, of not giving his forces ammunition and was critical of their handling of the conflict, but he always defended the reasoning for the military campaign and steered clear of criticizing Putin himself.

But he crossed these red lines over the weekend. Late on Friday, Prigozhin accused Russia’s military leadership of killing his fighters during a strike on a Wagner camp, which the Russian Defense Ministry has denied.

He also said Moscow invaded Ukraine under false pretenses devised by the Russian Ministry of Defense, and that Russia is actually losing ground on the battlefield.

“When we were told that we were at war with Ukraine, we went and fought. But it turned out that ammunition, weapons, all the money that was allocated is also being stolen, and the bureaucrats are sitting [idly], saving it for themselves, just for the occasion that happened today, when someone [is] marching to Moscow,” Prigozhin said.

What followed was a remarkable 24-hour confrontation that seemingly weakened Putin’s reputation and sowed further discord and infighting in Russia’s military ranks.

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