The leader of the Wagner mercenary group defended his short-lived insurrection in a boastful audio statement Monday as the Kremlin tried to project stability, with authorities releasing a video of Russia’s defense minister reviewing troops in Ukraine.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said he wasn’t seeking to stage a coup but was 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, giving no details about where he was or what his plans were.
The feud between the Wagner Group leader and Russia’s military brass has festered throughout the war, erupting into a mutiny over the weekend when mercenaries left Ukraine to seize a military headquarters in a southern Russian city. 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, although a popular Russian news channel on Telegram reported he was at a hotel in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
Prigozhin taunted Russia’s military on Monday, calling his march a “master class” on how it 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.
The bullish statement made no clearer what would ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces under the deal purportedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Prigozhin said only that 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.
The independent Russian news outlet Vyorstka claimed that construction of a field camp for up to 8,000 Wagner troops was underway in an area of Belarus about 200 kilometers (320 miles) north of the border with Ukraine.
The report couldn’t be independently verified. The Belarusian military monitoring group Belaruski Hajun said Monday on Telegram that it had seen no activity in that district consistent with construction of a facility, and had no indications of Wagner convoys in or moving towards Belarus.
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 had rows 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 Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed in a Saturday morning address to punish those behind it.
It was unclear what resources Prigozhin can draw on, and how much of his substantial wealth he can access. Police searching his St. Petersburg office amid the rebellion found 4 billion rubles ($48 million) in trucks outside the building, according to Russian media reports confirmed by the Wagner boss. He said the money was intended to pay his soldiers’ families.
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 defense chief Sergei 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 and could be replaced.
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, and the force 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.
U.S. President Joe Biden and leaders of several of Ukraine’s European allies discussed the events in Russia over the weekend, but Western officials have been muted in their public comments.
Biden said Monday that the U.S. and NATO were not involved in the short-lived insurrection. Speaking at the White House, Biden explained that 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.
Biden said the U.S. was coordinating with allies to monitor the situation and maintain support for Ukraine.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg concurred Monday that “the events over the weekend are an internal Russian matter.”
And 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.