Ukraine war

Putin breaks silence for the first time since Wagner coup attempt

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in Moscow on June 26, 2023. (Photo: Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

The Wagner rebellion's leaders would be brought to justice, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised in a televised speech. This was Putin's first public statement since the mutiny by the mercenary group on June 24 ended in a tense truce.

The Russian president's comments on June 26 were his first since a vehement speech he gave a few days prior, when the apparent rebellion was still in progress, during which he referred to the actions of the Wagner chief as a "stab in the back" and vowed to put an end to what he called a "rebellion."

As part of a purported agreement wherein the criminal charges against him would be dropped in exchange for his agreement to go into exile in neighboring Belarus, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner, ordered his quickly advancing troops to stand down and return to base on June 24.

Putin, however, appeared to aim at the Wagner leader in his speech on June 26 as he condemned the rebel leaders' "criminal activity that aims to weaken the country" and vowed to bring the "organizers of this rebellion to justice."

Putin's comments seem to contradict earlier reports that Prigozhin's criminal charges would be dropped.

The Russian leader continued, "Any attempts to stir up unrest are doomed to fail," and asserted that the uprising would have been put down before it reached Moscow because the Kremlin was prepared and had already taken all "necessary decisions to neutralize the threat."

Vladimir Putin claimed that the majority of the Wagner fighters were patriots and that "by turning back, they avoided further bloodshed."

He continued by saying that he would permit Wagner combatants to settle in Belarus, enter into agreements with the defense ministry, or merely return to their families if they so desired.

Speculation surrounded whether the Kremlin and Wagner truce would hold ahead of Putin's eagerly awaited speech as the exiled leader of the mercenary group insisted in a statement that he wasn't trying to unseat Putin, and Western officials questioned whether another act in the dramatic saga was still to come.

Prigozhin Breaks Silence

After his hired assassins June 24 took over the Russian Defense Ministry's headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and mounted a lightning-quick advance on Moscow, Prigozhin broke his two-day silence on June 26.

Wagner's march toward Moscow, according to an audio message posted by Prigozhin on his Telegram channel on June 26, was a "march" of protest rather than a coup attempt.

The march's goal, he stated in the message, was to stop PMC Wagner from being destroyed and to bring those responsible for the numerous mistakes that were made during the special military operation to justice.

Russia claims that its actions in Ukraine are part of a "special military operation" to "de-Nazify" and demilitarize its neighbor, which it accuses of trying to establish a NATO stronghold on its borders, endangering Moscow's security.

After an alleged attack by the Russian army on his mercenaries' military camp, which Prigozhin claimed had been ordered by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu himself, Prigozhin went on the warpath against the Russian Defense Ministry days earlier.

Kremlin Projecting Calm

Later that day, in a stunning turn of events, the Wagner advance on Moscow was abruptly put to an end in a deal mediated by Belarus with Putin's alleged approval that ensured Wagner troops would be pardoned and Prigozhin would relocate to neighboring Belarus.

Prigozhin's criminal charges may be dropped, according to the Belarus President's Office, which mediated the agreement. On June 24, the Wagner commander claimed he had ordered his troops to return to their bases in Ukraine and continue fighting there on Russia's behalf.

On June 24, the day the truce was declared, Prigozhin left Rostov-on-Don, receiving a hero's send-off from some locals as he grinned for the cameras with his mutineers.

On June 26, Russia attempted to project calm, with Shoigu appearing in public for the first time since the Wagner revolt called for his removal.

On June 26, however, there was still a great deal of ambiguity regarding the outcome of the Wagner-Kremlin truce because over the weekend, reports citing unnamed sources within the Russian Prosecutor General's Office claimed that the criminal charges against Prigozhin had not been dropped.

Putin's appointed prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, publicly acknowledged on June 26 that Russia was facing "a challenge to its stability" and appealed for support from the populace.

‘Intrigues and Ill-Considered Decisions’

On June 26, Prigozhin claimed that the Wagner group had been disbanded by the Russian government "as a result of intrigues and ill-considered decisions," and that the march on Moscow was intended to be a protest rather than a takeover.

He said, "We felt that demonstrating what we wanted to do was enough," explaining why the Wagner advance on Moscow was stopped and its troops told to return to base.

In a message sent on June 24, Prigozhin expressed his opposition to Wagner being disbanded by the Russian military establishment.

“They wanted to disband the Wagner military company. We embarked on a march of justice on June 23. In 24 hours, we got to within 200 kilometers of Moscow. In this time, we did not spill a single drop of our fighters’ blood,” he said.

“Now the moment has come when blood could be spilled. Understanding responsibility [for the chance] that Russian blood will be spilled on one side, we are turning our columns around and going back to field camps as planned.”

Following the announcement of the agreement, the Kremlin declared it would drop the "armed mutiny" accusations against the Wagner fighters.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, told reporters in Moscow that "we have always respected their heroic deeds at the front." Peskov also said that Russian authorities were grateful to Belarus President Aleksander Lukashenko for his role in defusing the situation.

Wagner fighters who chose not to take part in the uprising would be given employment opportunities by the Russian Defense Ministry, which had been attempting to subjugate all autonomous volunteer forces by July 1—a move that Prigozhin viewed as a threat to Wagner's continued existence.

The Wagner uprising is still under investigation, despite reports that Prigozhin would not be charged as part of the agreement, according to several reports from the state-run RIA Novosti and Interfax news agencies that cited unnamed sources in the Russian government.

Putin's remarks on June 26 seem to support rumors that Prigozhin might still be charged. Unknown at this time is the whereabouts of the Wagner leader.

‘Rising Storm’

On June 25's "Meet the Press" on NBC, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that Prigozhin's criticisms of Russia's military leadership were detrimental to Russia's reputation.

“I think it’s been no secret to many people over many months that these tensions were rising, they were brewing. Prigozhin was already saying some rather extraordinary things about Russia’s conduct of the war in Ukraine and going directly at Russia’s military leadership,” Blinken said. “So this was a rising storm.”

“I think we’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian facade. It is too soon to tell exactly where they go and when they get there. But certainly, we have all sorts of new questions that Putin is going to have to address in the weeks and months ahead.

“This is a challenge coming from within to Putin, and that’s where his focus has been.”

In a separate interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Blinken called the Kremlin–Wagner saga an “unfolding story.”

“We haven’t seen the last act. We’re watching it very closely and carefully.”

On June 26, President Joe Biden stated that neither the United States nor NATO were involved in the brief Wagner mutiny and that it is "too early" to determine the impact of the conflict in Ukraine.

“This was part of a struggle within the Russian system,” Biden said.

Wagner in Ukraine

A Russian paramilitary group known as The Wagner Group, also known as PMC Wagner or Wagner Private Military Company, came to light in 2014 when it backed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Wagner forces have given the Kremlin crucial assistance during Russia's most recent "special military operation" in Ukraine, carrying out much of the bloodiest fighting in the Donbas and suffering heavy losses in the battle for Bakhmut.

Wagner's involvement in Ukraine, however, had led to Prigozhin becoming more and more critical of the military leadership in Russia.

Due to defeats on the battlefield in Ukraine, including significant Wagner losses in bloody shootouts during the battle for Bakhmut, Prigozhin leveled several criticisms at the military leadership, including that Wagner wasn't receiving enough ammunition.

On June 23, Prigozhin called for an armed uprising on his Telegram channel, accusing Shoigu of "destroying" his fighters in an alleged airstrike by the Russian military.

Publish : 2023-06-27 08:42:00

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