Russian mercenary chief says he did not intend coup, Putin thanks those who stood down

By Reuters   June 26, 2023 | 05:00 pm PT
Russian mercenary chief says he did not intend coup, Putin thanks those who stood down
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group's pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. Photo by Reuters
The boss of Russia's Wagner mercenary group, two days after leading an aborted mutiny, on Monday said he never intended to overthrow the government, while Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked Wagner fighters who stood down.

Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin gave few clues about his own fate, including his whereabouts, or the deal under which he halted a move toward Moscow.

Putin made a televised address on Monday, his first public comments since Saturday when he said the rebellion put Russia's very existence under threat and that those behind it would be punished.

He thanked the mercenary commanders and soldiers who avoided bloodshed and said he would honor his promise to allow Wagner forces to relocate to Belarus if they wanted, sign a contract with Russia's Defense Ministry or return to their families.

He made no mention of Prigozhin. Also on Monday Putin met with the heads of Russian security services, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, IFX reported, citing a Kremlin spokesman.

One of Prigozhin's principal demands had been that Shoigu be sacked, along with Russia's top general, who by Monday evening had yet to appear in public since the mutiny.

Prigozhin whereabouts unclear

Last seen on Saturday night smiling and high-fiving bystanders from the back of an SUV as he withdrew from a city occupied by his men, Prigozhin said his fighters had halted their campaign in order to avert bloodshed.

"We went as a demonstration of protest, not to overthrow the government of the country," Prigozhin said in an 11-minute audio message.

He said his goal was to prevent his Wagner militia's destruction, and to force accountability on commanders who had botched Russia's military campaign in Ukraine. He said his fighters did not engage in ground combat in Russia, and regretted having to shoot down Russian aircraft that fired on them.

"We halted at the moment when the first assault unit deployed its artillery (near Moscow), conducted reconnaissance and realized that a lot of blood would be spilled."

He made no direct reference to his own whereabouts, or provide further details of the mysterious agreement that had brought a halt to his mutiny.

On Saturday Prigozhin had said he was leaving for Belarus under a deal brokered by its president, Alexander Lukashenko. In Monday's remarks he said Lukashenko had offered to let Wagner operate under a legal framework, but did not elaborate.

The White House said it could not confirm whether the Wagner chief was in Belarus.

'Nothing to do with it'

Prigozhin shocked the world by leading Saturday's armed revolt, only to abruptly call it off as his fighters approached the capital having shot down several aircraft but meeting no resistance on the ground during a dash of nearly 800 km (500 miles).

Russia's three main news agencies reported on Monday that a criminal case against Prigozhin had not been closed, an apparent reversal of an offer of immunity publicized as part of the deal that persuaded him to stand down.

U.S. President Joe Biden called the mutiny "part of a struggle within the Russian system." He discussed it in a conference call with key allies who agreed it was vital not to let Putin blame it on the West or NATO, he said.

"We made it clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it," Biden said.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said it was "a new thing to see President Putin's leadership directly challenged. It is a new thing to see Yevgeny Prigozhin directly questioning the rationale for this war and calling out that the war has been conducted essentially based on a lie."

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said U.S. policy did not seek to change the government in Russia.

Projecting calm

Russian officials sought to project calm. Russia's national Anti-Terrorism Committee said the situation in the country was stable. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who had told residents to stay indoors on Saturday as the mutinous fighters raced to within a few hundred kilometers of the capital, said he was canceling a counter-terrorism security regime.

Foreign governments, both friendly and hostile to Russia, were left groping for answers to what had happened behind the scenes and what could come next.

Russia's ally China, where a senior Russian diplomat visited on Sunday, said it supported Moscow in maintaining national stability.

Ukraine and its Western allies said the turmoil revealed cracks in Putin's Russia.

"The political system is showing fragilities, and the military power is cracking," European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Luxembourg as he arrived for a meeting with ministers from across the 27-member bloc.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia's intelligence services were investigating whether Western spy agencies played a role in the aborted mutiny, the TASS news agency reported. It cited no evidence.

Prigozhin, 62, a former Putin ally and ex-convict whose forces have fought the bloodiest battles of the 16-month war in Ukraine, defied orders this month to place his troops under Defense Ministry command.

Ukraine hopes the chaos caused by the mutiny will undermine Russia's defenses as Kyiv presses on with a counteroffensive, begun earlier this month to recapture territory which Moscow claims to have annexed.

On Monday, Ukraine said its forces had recaptured the small southern village of Rivnopil, the ninth village it says it has retaken since launching the counteroffensive, and first in more than a week. Russia said it had foiled Ukrainian attacks.

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