Putin blasts Wagner ‘traitors’ in late-night speech to nation after Prigozhin denies coup plot

Putin blasts Wagner ‘traitors’ in late-night speech to nation after Prigozhin denies coup plot
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a working meeting with the participation of heads of Russian law enforcement agencies at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 26 June 2023. EPA-EFE/VALERIY SHARIFULIN

President Vladimir Putin condemned leaders of the Wagner mercenary group as traitors to Russia in a late-night speech to the nation, his first public comments since the mutiny that posed the most serious threat to his nearly quarter-century rule.

“The organisers of the rebellion betrayed their country and their people, and betrayed those who were dragged into the crime, lied to them, pushed them to death under fire,” Putin said, without mentioning anyone by name. 

He spoke hours after Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said he wasn’t trying to oust Putin’s government but would keep his mercenary company going despite official efforts to shut it down.  

Putin’s comments did little to clarify the mystery around the weekend’s events or the fate of Prigozhin, who the Kremlin said had agreed to go to Belarus and avoid prosecution as part of the deal to pull his forces back brokered by that country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko. 

Putin held a meeting with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and heads of the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service, the Russian National Guard and the Investigative Committee, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said after the president’s address.

In his speech, Putin said Ukraine and its allies in the West had been “rubbing their hands” at the prospect of infighting in Russia. The US and Europe have said they sought to make clear to Moscow that they weren’t involved in the weekend’s events. 

In his speech, Putin addressed Wagner fighters, saying they could join the regular military, go home or relocate to Belarus. “The promise I made will be fulfilled,” he said.

Read more: Wagner-in-Chief: Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s rebelling bulldog of war?

It wasn’t clear what that meant for Prigozhin himself, however. State media reported earlier on Monday that the criminal case against him opened at the start of the crisis still hadn’t been closed. 

The mercenary chief said the march on Moscow by Wagner troops to within 200km of the capital on Saturday was a protest aimed at bringing to account those responsible for “enormous mistakes” in Russia’s war in Ukraine as well as to prevent the “destruction” of his private army by officials, in an 11-minute audio message on his press service’s Telegram channel. 

“We did not have the goal of overthrowing the existing regime and the legitimately elected government,” he said, stopping short of openly pledging his loyalty to Putin.

Read more: Putin faces historic threat to absolute grip on power in Russia

The Kremlin had sought in public to put the dramatic upheaval behind it. State television showed footage earlier on Monday of Shoigu — the main target of Prigozhin’s attacks on the handling of the war — meeting commanders.

Putin’s comments were the first since early Saturday when he denounced the revolt as “treason” in a TV address and threatened “harsh” punishment that never transpired. 

Instead, Lukashenko negotiated with Prigozhin to end the revolt in return for Putin allowing him to travel to Belarus and dropping criminal mutiny charges against the Wagner leader and his fighters.

In his latest audio message, the mercenary chief pointedly noted the expressions of public support he said his fighters enjoyed as they marched through Russia’s heartland. “Civilians were happy to see us,” he said.

Prigozhin also continued his criticism of top security officials, noting that his fighters had been able to advance 780km into Russia over 24 hours, blockading military units along the way without significant resistance.

A ‘masterclass’

“Our ‘march of justice’ showed many of the things we’ve talked about earlier, the serious problems with security on the whole territory of the country,” he said. Its lightning progress was also a “masterclass” for how the military should have pursued its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he added.

He accused the Defence Ministry of seeking to destroy Wagner with an order requiring his fighters to sign up with the military by July 1. Lukashenko had offered to allow Wagner to continue operating in Belarus, he said.

“Though he retreated, Prigozhin is now a figure of a totally different scale,” Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a political consultant, wrote. “Putin will have to do something about this, balancing the risks of a potentially negative reaction from his followers and those who support him.”

Prigozhin didn’t say in his recording where he was. He was last seen publicly leaving the southern city of Rostov-on-Don with his fighters as they withdrew amid cheers from the public late on Saturday. Putin gave his “personal guarantee” that Prigozhin would be allowed to leave for Belarus, the Kremlin said over the weekend.

The rapid chain of events has left the US, Europe and China puzzling over the political fallout from a rebellion that shattered Putin’s invincible image as Russia’s leader and spiralled into the greatest threat to his nearly quarter-century rule. The crisis highlighted bitter divisions within Russia over the faltering war in Ukraine that’s the biggest conflict in Europe since World War 2, as a Ukrainian counteroffensive continues to try to push Putin’s forces out of occupied territories.

Read more: US and Nato weren’t involved in Russia insurrection, says Biden 

There’s “an internal power struggle in Russia and we will not get involved,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters on Monday as European Union foreign ministers gathered for a scheduled meeting in Luxembourg. “We are seeing that Russia’s leadership is increasingly fighting within itself.”

US President Joe Biden said it was still too early to determine the impact of the revolt.

“We’re going to keep assessing the fallout of this weekend’s events and the implications for Russia and Ukraine. It is still too early to reach a definitive conclusion about where it is going,” he said in his first public remarks on the mutiny, during a White House event on Monday. DM


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