Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday accused Ukraine and its Western allies of wanting Russians to “kill each other” amid an uprising by mercenaries from the Wagner group, which stunned the country this weekend with an aborted march on Moscow.
In his first address to the nation since the rebels withdrew, Putin said he had issued orders to prevent bloodshed, amnestying the Wagner fighters whose mutiny had posed the greatest challenge yet to his two decades of rule.
“From the beginning of events, steps were taken on my orders to prevent large-scale bloodshed,” Putin said in a televised address, thanking the Russians for their “patriotism”.
“It was exactly this fratricide that the Russian enemies wanted: the neo-Nazis in Kiev as well as 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 uprising at a meeting attended by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of the main targets of the mutiny.
“Citizen solidarity has shown that any blackmail, any attempt to organize internal unrest is doomed to failure,” Putin said.
He added that Wagner fighters could choose whether to join the Russian army or leave for Belarus, or even return to their homes.
“Today you have the option 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 can go to Belarus,” said Putin in a statement. his address.
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin had previously defended his aborted mutiny as an attempt to save his mercenary force and denounce the failures of Russia’s military leadership, but not to challenge the Kremlin.
The rogue warlord’s first audio message since breaking off his troops’ advance on Moscow was released as Russian officials tried to get the public to return to business as usual.
– ‘Internal Russian affair’ –
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said officials were watching “very closely” the unrest in the nuclear-armed country.
“We had and were able to have conversations in real time – through diplomatic channels – with Russian officials about our concerns,” he said.
But the State Department said Ambassador Lynne Tracy had contacted Russian officials in Moscow “to reiterate what we have said publicly — that this is an internal Russian matter in which the United States is not and will not be involved.” .
Fighting continued in Ukraine, where Kyiv’s forces won new victories in their battle to drive Russian troops from the east and south of the country, but in the Russian capital authorities withdrew their strengthened security regime.
Prigozhin, who did not reveal where he was speaking from, said in an online audio message that his revolt was to prevent his Wagner force from being dismantled, and boasted that the ease with which it had advanced Moscow revealed “serious security concerns” . .
“We went to demonstrate our protest and not to overthrow power in the country,” said Prigozhin, boasting that his men had blocked “all military infrastructure,” including air bases along their route to a point less than 200 kilometers (125 miles) away. 125 miles) from Moscow. .
– Belarus option –
Prighozin broke off the advance and retreated late Saturday from a military base his men had seized in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, a nerve center of the war in Ukraine, after mediation efforts by Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko was due to speak about the unrest soon, according to his unofficial Telegram channel Pul Pervogo.
Prigozhin said Lukashenko had offered him a way to keep Wagner equipment – a key element in the Russian military machine in Ukraine and in hotspots in Africa and the Middle East – operational.
Saturday’s extraordinary sequence of events — Russian military bloggers report that Wagner shot down six Russian helicopters and a command and control aircraft during their advance — is internationally recognized as Russia’s most serious security crisis in decades.
The Kremlin went to great lengths to emphasize that there was a return to normal.
Wagner’s St. Petersburg headquarters said it remained open for business, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the company would continue to operate in Mali and the Central African Republic.
Officials in Moscow and in the Voronezh region south of the capital have lifted emergency “anti-terrorist” security measures imposed to protect the capital from rebel attacks.
– ‘Moving forward’ –
Ukrainian military leaders, meanwhile, insisted they make progress in the south and east of the country, and President Volodymyr Zelensky made a morale-boosting trip to troops battling Russian forces near the town of Bakhmut.
“We are knocking the enemy out of its positions on the flanks of the city of Bakhmut,” said eastern ground force commander Oleksandr Syrskyi. “Ukraine is regaining its territory. We are moving forward.”
Ukrainian residents of the front-line town of Druzhkivka, near Bakhmut, also in Donetsk, told AFP that four overnight explosions shook a residential area to its foundations.
The blasts cut water and sewage pipes, shattered windows and threw stones that hit gardens and roofs, but no one was injured, according to the municipality.
“It was a ‘nice’ evening. We haven’t had this in a long time. It’s been quiet for a month or so,” said 66-year-old Lyubov, showing off the new hole in her roof with cement chips.