The man who led the insurrection has gone uncharacteristically quiet. The president hasn’t been seen in public since denouncing the mutiny as “treason” and threatening “harsh” punishment that never transpired.
In a bewildering 24 hours, a transfixed international audience watched troops loyal to Russian mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin advance hundreds of kilometres toward Moscow at breakneck speed only for him to suddenly call off the assault and agree to go into exile with all charges dropped in a late-night deal.
The rapid chain of events left the US and Europe puzzling over the political implications of a rebellion that shattered Putin’s image as Russia’s invincible leader. The crisis unfolded amid bitter divisions in Russia over the faltering war in Ukraine, the biggest conflict in Europe since World War 2, as a Ukrainian counteroffensive continues to try to push Russian forces out of occupied territories.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation that the Wagner mercenary group’s revolt was a “direct challenge” to Putin’s authority and “raises profound questions.” “We can’t speculate or know exactly where that’s going to go. We do know that Putin has a lot more to answer for in the weeks and months ahead.”
The US had intelligence several days ago that Prigozhin was plotting to take armed action against Russian defence officials, according to a person familiar with the matter.
In China, which has boosted ties with Putin and refused to join US-led sanctions over the war, Foreign Minister Qin Gang met Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko in Beijing on Sunday to discuss international and regional issues of common interest, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu also met Rudenko on Sunday, vowing to defend the two countries’ common interests under the “complex and grim” international environment. Chinese state media had covered the uprising in Russia, while the Global Times published an article by former editor-in-chief Hu Xijin analysing potential scenarios including regime change.
The Chinese side expressed support for the Russian leadership’s efforts to stabilise the situation in the country, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a website statement.
“There’s no question that Putin has been weakened,” Wess Mitchell, a former US assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia and cofounder of two think tanks, said in an interview. “This will be the conclusion that the US and Nato draw — but also the Chinese.”
Even North Korea appeared concerned. Vice Foreign Minister Im Chon Il “expressed firm belief that the recent armed rebellion in Russia would be successfully put down” at a meeting with the Russian ambassador, North Korea’s Central News Agency reported.
Putin, 70, hasn’t commented on the deal brokered by his ally Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that ended Prigozhin’s revolt. The Kremlin said Putin guaranteed to let the Wagner leader travel to Belarus and to drop criminal mutiny charges against him and fighters involved in the rebellion.
“Putin had to make concessions and actually surrender, and instead of defeating Prigozhin, he had to negotiate with him and give security guarantees, demonstrating in public his vulnerability,” said Kirill Rogov, a former Russian government adviser who now heads Re: Russia, a Vienna-based think tank. “Previously, Putin absolutely didn’t allow anyone to talk to him in the language of public ultimatums.”
Prigozhin’s whereabouts are unknown and he hasn’t commented since announcing his forces were withdrawing to avoid bloodshed late on Saturday in an audio message on Telegram. Video on social media showed crowds cheering him and shaking his hand as he was driven away from a military installation in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don that Wagner had taken over early in the mutiny.
Putin thanked Lukashenko in a phone call late on Saturday for conducting the negotiations and reaching the deal, Belarus’s state-run Belta news service reported.
Russia began lifting emergency restrictions to try to quickly restore a sense of normality. Hastily installed roadblocks were dismantled on Sunday on highways leading into Moscow, though the authorities said Monday will remain a non-working day announced by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin after the imposition of a “counter-terrorist regime” in the capital.
Trading on the Moscow Exchange will go ahead as normal on Monday, the Bank of Russia said in a statement.
Regional officials in Rostov-on-Don, Voronezh and Lipetsk reported that Wagner troops had left their territories and were heading to their field bases.
Mitchell, the former US official, said Prigozhin’s challenge to Putin suggests that the strategy of helping Ukraine while pressuring Russia is working. “It’s a strategic opportunity” for Ukraine, he said.
The agreement was announced only hours after Putin told Russians on state TV that those taking part in the rebellion had “betrayed Russia and will answer for it.” The decision not to prosecute Prigozhin and his men for treason stood in stark contrast to the zeal with which the authorities have given long jail sentences to people for even minor peaceful protests against the war.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu
The Wagner founder has for months attacked Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and top army officials in Moscow over the conduct of the war, alleging they failed to adequately support Wagner troops fighting in Ukraine and particularly during battles for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
He has also repeatedly called for the Kremlin to introduce tougher measures including full mobilisation and martial law, warning that Russia risked defeat in the war without them.
Tensions erupted on Friday when Prigozhin, 62, posted audio messages on Telegram vowing to “punish” the Defence Ministry for what he alleged was a missile attack on a Wagner base and the losses of “tens of thousands” of Russian troops in the war. He accused Shoigu of attempting to “destroy” Wagner. The Defence Ministry denied Prigozhin’s claims about a strike.
The showdown had echoes in Russian history, where leaders including Tsar Nicholas II and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev were ousted after military misadventures. Putin himself, in his televised address, drew a comparison with divisions in Russia during World War 1 that led to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and civil war.
In Voronezh, a city of one million, shocked residents sought to come to terms with the turmoil. “What seemed impossible only yesterday, today is suddenly in your life,” said Petr, 46, a car dealer who asked not to be identified out of concern for his security.