(AP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday blasted organizers of a weekend revolt as “traitors” who played into the hands of Ukraine’s government and its allies. The rebellion by armed mercenaries, which lasted less than 24 hours, was the gravest threat yet to Putin’s authority.
Putin sought to project stability, praising the rank and file mercenaries for not letting the situation descend into “bloodshed.” He said the nation had stood united, although there had been some localized signs of support for the uprising.
Earlier in the day, the rebellion’s leader, mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, defended his short-lived insurrection. He again taunted Russia’s military, but said he hadn’t been seeking to stage a coup against Putin. On Friday, Prigozhin had called for an armed rebellion to oust the military leadership.
Putin’s address was announced by his spokesman in advance and billed by Russian state media as something that would “define the fate of Russia.” In fact, the address didn’t yield groundbreaking developments.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst, called the address weak.
“The fact that it took place indicates one thing: Putin is acutely dissatisfied with how he looked in this whole story and is trying to correct the situation.” Gallyamov wrote on Facebook.
The Kremlin also showed Putin meeting with top security, law enforcement and military officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom the uprising had tried to remove. Putin thanked members of his team for their work over the weekend. Earlier, the authorities also released a video of Shoigu reviewing troops in Ukraine.
In his first appearance since the rebellion ended, Putin spoke in a stern tone, looking tired, in a five-minute TV address to his nation near midnight. He declined to name Prigozhin, but said mutiny organizers had tried to force the group’s soldiers “to shoot their own.”
He blamed “Russia’s enemies” and said they “miscalculated.”
Western officials have been muted in their public comments on the mutiny, and President Joe Biden said Monday that the U.S. and NATO were not involved. Speaking at the White House, Biden said he was cautious about speaking publicly because he wanted to give “Putin no excuse to blame this on the West and blame this on NATO.”
“We made clear that we were not involved, we had nothing to do with it,” he said.
Prigozhin said he had been acting to prevent the destruction of Wagner, his private military company. “We started our march because of an injustice,” he said in an 11-minute statement Monday, giving no details about where he was or what his plans were.
The feud between the Wagner Group leader and military brass has festered throughout the war, erupting into the mutiny over the weekend when mercenaries left Ukraine to seize a military headquarters in the southern Russia city of Rostov. They rolled seemingly unopposed for hundreds of miles toward Moscow before turning around after less than 24 hours on Saturday.
The Kremlin said it had made a deal for Prigozhin to move to Belarus and receive amnesty, along with his soldiers. There was no confirmation of his whereabouts Monday.
Prigozhin boasted Monday that his march was a “master class” on how Russia’s military should have carried out the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. He also mocked the military for failing to protect Russia, pointing out security breaches that allowed Wagner to march 780 kilometers (500 miles) toward Moscow without facing resistance.
It remained unclear what would ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces under the deal purportedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Prigozhin said Lukashenko “proposed finding solutions for the Wagner private military company to continue its work in a lawful jurisdiction.” That suggested Prigozhin might keep his military force, although it wasn’t immediately clear which jurisdiction he was referring to.
Though the mutiny was brief, it was not bloodless. Russian media reported that several military helicopters and a communications plane were shot down by Wagner forces, killing at least 15. Prigozhin expressed regret for attacking the aircraft but said they were bombing his convoys.
Russian media reported that a criminal case against Prigozhin hasn’t been closed, despite earlier Kremlin statements, and some Russian lawmakers called for his head.
Andrei Gurulev, a retired general and current lawmaker who has clashed with the mercenary leader, said Prigozhin and his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin deserve “a bullet in the head.”
And Nikita Yurefev, a city council member in St. Petersburg, said he filed an official request with Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, asking who would be punished for the rebellion, given that Putin vowed in a Saturday morning address to punish those behind it.
Russian media reported that Wagner offices in several Russian cities had reopened on Monday and the company had resumed enlisting recruits.
In a return to at least superficial normality, Moscow’s mayor announced an end to the “counterterrorism regime” imposed on the capital Saturday, when troops and armored vehicles set up checkpoints on the outskirts and authorities tore up roads leading into the city.
The Defense Ministry published video of Shoigu in a helicopter and then meeting with officers at a military headquarters in Ukraine. It was unclear when the video was shot. It came as Russian media speculated that Shoigu and other military leaders have lost Putin’s confidence.
Before the uprising, Prigozhin had blasted Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov with expletive-ridden insults for months, accusing them of failing to provide his troops with enough ammunition during the fight for the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.
Prigozhin’s statement appeared to confirm analysts’ view that the revolt was a desperate move to save Wagner from being dismantled after an order that all private military companies sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1.
Prigozhin said most of his fighters refused to come under the Defense Ministry’s command. He said the force had planned to hand over the military equipment it was using in Ukraine on June 30 after pulling out of Ukraine and gathering in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. He accused the Defense Ministry of attacking Wagner’s camp, prompting them to move sooner.
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said on Twitter that Prigozhin’s mutiny “wasn’t a bid for power or an attempt to overtake the Kremlin,” but a desperate move amid his escalating rift with the military leadership.
While Prigozhin could get out of the crisis alive, he doesn’t have a political future in Russia under Putin, Stanovaya said.
It was unclear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for the war in Ukraine, where Western officials say Russia’s troops suffer low morale. Wagner’s forces were key to Russia’s only land victory in months, in Bakhmut.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense said Monday that Ukraine had “gained impetus” in its push around Bakhmut, making progress north and south of the town. Ukrainian forces claimed to have retaken Rivnopil, a village in southeast Ukraine that has seen heavy fighting.
Leaders of several of Ukraine’s European allies discussed the events in Russia over the weekend, and Biden said the U.S. was coordinating with allies to monitor the situation and maintain support for Kyiv. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called the events in Russia “an internal Russian matter.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy had contacted Russian representatives Saturday to stress that the U.S. was not involved in the mutiny.
The events show the war is “cracking Russia’s political system,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
“The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now,” Borrell said. “The monster is acting against his creator.”
Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels and Jill Lawless in London contributed.