The leader of the Wagner mercenary group broke his silence today and defended his short-lived insurrection in a boastful audio statement Monday, but uncertainty still swirled about his fate, as well as that of senior Russian military leaders, the impact on the war in Ukraine, and even the political future of President Vladimir Putin.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made his first public appearance since the uprising that demanded his ouster, in a video aimed at projecting a sense of order after the country’s most serious political crisis in decades.
In an 11-minute audio statement, Yevgeny Prigozhin said he acted “to prevent the destruction of the Wagner private military company” and in response to an attack on a Wagner camp that killed some 30 fighters.
“We started our march because of an injustice,” Prigozhin said in a recording that gave no details about where he is or what his future plans are.
A feud between the Wagner Group leader and Russia’s military brass that has festered throughout the war erupted into a mutiny that saw the mercenaries leave Ukraine to seize a military headquarters in a southern Russian city and roll 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, although a popular Russian news channel on Telegram reported he was at a hotel in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
In his statement, Prigozhin taunted Russia’s military, calling his march a “master class” on how it should have carried out the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. He also mocked the Russian military for failing to protect the country, pointing out security breaches that allowed Wagner to march 780 kilometers (500 miles) without facing resistance and block all military units on its way.
The bullish statement made no clearer what would ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces under the deal purportedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Prigozhin didn’t disclose details, but said Lukashenko “proposed finding solutions for the Wagner private military company to continue its work in a lawful jurisdiction.” That suggested Prigozhin might keep his military force, although it wasn’t immediately clear which jurisdiction he was referring to.
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The independent Russian news outlet Vyorstka claimed that construction of a field camp for up to 8,000 Wagner troops was underway in an area of Belarus about 200 kilometers (320 miles) north of the border with Ukraine.
The report couldn’t be independently verified. The Belarusian military monitoring group Belaruski Hajun said Monday on Telegram that it had seen no activity in that district consistent with construction of a facility, and hadn’t no indications of Wagner convoys either in or moving towards Belarus.
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 downing the aircraft but said they were bombing his convoys.
Russia’s Defense Ministry has denied attacking Wagner’s camp, and the U.S. had intelligence that Prigozhin was building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time, suggesting the revolt was planned.
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.
Andrei Gurulev, a retired general and current lawmaker who has rowed with the mercenary leader, said Prigozhin and his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin deserve “a bullet in the head.”
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It was unclear what resources Prigozhin can draw on, and how much of his substantial wealth he can access. Police searching his St. Petersburg office amid the rebellion found 4 billion rubles ($48 million) in trucks outside the building, according to Russian media reports confirmed by the Wagner boss. He claimed the money was intended to pay his soldiers’ families.
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.
The Defense Ministry published video of Shoigu in a helicopter and then meeting with officers at a military headquarters in Ukraine. It was unclear when it was shot. The video came as Russian media speculated that Shoigu and other military leaders have lost Putin’s confidence and could be replaced.
Before the uprising, Prigozhin had blasted Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov with expletive-ridden insults for months, attacking them for 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’s statement appeared to confirm analysts’ view that the revolt was a desperate move to save Wagner from being dismantled after an order that all private military companies sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1.
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Prigozhin said the majority of his fighters refused to come under the Defense Ministry’s command, and the force planned to hand over the military equipment it was using in Ukraine on June 30, after pulling out of Ukraine and gathering in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Prigozhin claimed an attack that killed his fighters outraged the commanders and they decided to move sooner.
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 Russia’s 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 an area of southeast Ukraine that has seen heavy fighting.
U.S. President Joe Biden and leaders of several of Ukraine’s European allies discussed events in Russia over the weekend, but Western officials have been muted in their public comments.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told broadcaster RT that U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy contacted Russian representatives Saturday to stress that the U.S. was not involved in the mutiny and considered it an internal Russian matter. There was no immediate confirmation from the U.S., although Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that U.S. officials had “engaged” with Russia to stress the importance of protecting U.S. citizens and interests.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday that “the events over the weekend are an internal Russian matter.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the revolt showed that the war is “cracking Russia’s political system.”
“The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now,” Borrell said. “The monster is acting against his creator.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article