MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday accused Ukraine and its Western allies of wanting Russians to “kill each other” during a revolt by mercenaries of the Wagner group, which stunned the country with an aborted march on Moscow over the weekend.
In his first address to the nation since the rebels pulled back, Putin paid tribute to pilots killed fighting the aborted mutiny, confirming for the first time that Russian aviators had been lost in battle as the Wagner mercenary group marched on Moscow.
He said he had issued orders to avoid bloodshed and granted amnesty to the Wagner fighters whose mutiny served up the greatest challenge yet to his two-decade rule.
“From the start of the events, on my orders steps were taken to avoid large-scale bloodshed,” Putin said in a televised address, thanking Russians for their “patriotism.”
“It was precisely this fratricide that Russia’s enemies wanted: both the neo-Nazis in Kyiv and their Western patrons, and all sorts of national traitors. They wanted Russian soldiers to kill each other,” Putin said.
Putin also thanked his security officials for their work during the armed rebellion in a meeting that included Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a main target of the mutiny.
“Civilian solidarity showed that any blackmail, any attempts to organize internal turmoil, is doomed to fail,” Putin said.
Tribute to downed pilots
Putin’s remarks confirmed reports on social media that Wagner forces had downed Russian aircraft in the fighting.
“The courage and self-sacrifice of the fallen heroes-pilots saved Russia from tragic devastating consequences,” he said, adding that the rebellion threatened Russia’s very existence and those behind it would be punished.
There has been no official information about how many pilots died or how many aircraft were shot down.
Some Russian Telegram channels monitoring Russia’s military activity, including the blog Rybar with more than a million subscribers, reported on Saturday that 13 Russian pilots were killed during the day-long mutiny.
Among the aircraft downed were three Mi-8 MTPR electronic warfare helicopters, and an Il-18 aircraft with its crew, Rybar reported.
It was also not clear in what circumstances the aircraft were shot down and pilots killed.
Putin said “steps were taken on my direct instruction to avoid serious bloodshed” during the insurrection, which ended abruptly with Wagner forces standing down and Prigozhin agreeing to go into exile in neighboring Belarus.
“Time was needed, among other things, to give those who had made a mistake a chance to come to their senses, to realize that their actions were firmly rejected by society, and that the adventure in which they had been involved had tragic and destructive consequences for Russia and for our state,” Putin said.
Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin also spoke in an 11-minute audio message posted on his press service’s Telegram channel, and gave few clues to his whereabouts or the deal under which he halted the move toward Moscow.
He said his men had been forced to shoot down helicopters that attacked them as they drove nearly 800km (500 miles) from the south toward the capital, before abruptly calling off the uprising.
Numerous Western leaders saw the unrest as exposing Putin’s vulnerability following his decision to invade Ukraine 16 months ago.
Options for Wagner fighters
The Russian president said he would honor his weekend promise to allow Wagner forces to relocate to Belarus, sign a contract with Russia’s Defense Ministry, or return to their families.
“Today you have the possibility to continue serving Russia by entering into a contract with the Ministry of Defense or other law enforcement agencies, or to return to your family and close ones... Whoever wants to can go to Belarus,” Putin said in his address.
Putin thanked Wagner fighters and commanders who stood down to avoid what he called “fratricidal bloodshed,” and said the vast majority of Wagner’s members were patriots.
He made no mention of Prigozhin. Putin met on Monday night with the heads of Russian security services, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, IFX reported, citing a Kremlin spokesperson.
One of Prigozhin’s principal demands had been that Shoigu be sacked, along with Russia’s top general, who by Monday evening had not appeared in public since the mutiny.
Prigozhin, 62, a former Putin ally and ex-convict whose forces have fought the bloodiest battles of the Ukraine war, defied orders this month to place his troops under Defense Ministry command.
Prigozhin had earlier defended his aborted mutiny as a bid to save his mercenary outfit and expose the failures of Russia’s military leadership — but not to challenge the Kremlin.
Prigozhin, who did not reveal from where he was speaking, said in an online audio message that his revolt was intended to prevent his Wagner force from being dismantled, and bragged that the ease with which it had advanced on Moscow exposes “serious security problems.”
“We went to demonstrate our protest and not to overthrow power in the country,” Prigozhin said, boasting that his men had “blocked all military infrastructure” including air bases along their route toward a point less than 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Moscow.
Prighozin called off the advance and pulled out of a military base his men had seized in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, a nerve center of the war in Ukraine, late on Saturday after mediation efforts from Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Last seen on Saturday night smiling and high-fiving bystanders from the back of an SUV as he withdrew from a Russian city occupied by his men, Prigozhin said his fighters had halted their campaign to avert bloodshed.
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.
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.
The Wagner headquarters in Saint Petersburg said it remained open for business, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the firm would continue to operate in Mali and the Central African Republic.
Officials in Moscow and the Voronezh region south of the capital lifted “anti-terrorist” emergency security measures imposed to protect the capital from rebel assault.
’Nothing to do with it’
In comments before a speech in Washington, US 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.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said US policy did not seek to change the government in Russia.
The State Department said Ambassador Lynne Tracy in Moscow had contacted Russian officials “to reiterate what we said publicly — that this is an internal Russian affair in which the United States is not involved and will not be involved.”
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.
“The political system is showing fragilities, and the military power is cracking,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Luxembourg.
In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky said the military had made advances on Monday in all sectors of the front line, calling it a “happy day” in his nightly video address delivered from a train after visiting frontline positions.
Fighting continued in Ukraine, where Kyiv’s forces claimed new victories in their battle to evict Russian troops from the east and south of the country, but in the Russian capital, authorities stood down their enhanced security regime.
Zelensky made a morale-boosting trip to troops fighting Russian forces near the city of Bakhmut, the site of some of the most intense battles in the conflict, and touted his force’s military progress.
“Today, our soldiers made progress in all areas, and this is a happy day,” Zelensky said Monday in his regular evening address.
Military leaders said their forces were making progress in the south and east of the country.
“We are knocking the enemy out of its positions on the flanks of the city of Bakhmut,” eastern ground force commander Oleksandr Syrskyi said. “Ukraine is regaining its territory. We are moving forward.”
Near Bakhmut, residents in the frontline town of Druzhkivka, which is also in Donetsk, told AFP that four explosions had rocked a residential district overnight.
The blasts severed water and sewage pipes, shattered windows and threw up stones that hit yards and roofs, but municipal authorities said no one was hurt.
“It was a ‘fun’ night, we haven’t had this for a long time, it’s been quiet for a month or so,” said 66-year-old Lyubov, showing off the new hole in her cement-shingled roof.