Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday assailed those responsible for the armed revolt that plunged his regime into crisis as traitors who played into the hands of those who wanted to see the country “drowned in a bloody domestic strife.”
Addressing the nation for the first time since the short-lived rebellion ended over the weekend, Putin appeared defiant but offered little clarity about his planned response.
“Any kind of blackmail, any attempts to create internal turmoil are doomed to failure,” he said, claiming his forces could have crushed a mutiny that posed the biggest challenge to his rule in more than 20 years had the mercenary fighters not turned back from Moscow.
Putin also thanked the Russian people for their support and said the crisis had only served to unite the country.
Earlier Monday, Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin issued a defiant defense of his own actions and denied trying to topple Putin.
The Kremlin had said over the weekend that the rebel leader would have all charges against him dropped and be allowed to seek exile. Putin’s statement didn’t refer to Prigozhin directly by name, but he did say he would keep his promise to Wagner fighters that they could join the Russian military or move safely to Belarus.
It followed a day in which the Russian president and other top officials had scrambled to restore a sense of authority after the unprecedented challenge to their power.
In his speech, Putin again labeled the organizers of the rebellion traitors. “The organizers of this rebellion not only betrayed their country and their people, but also betrayed those whom they dragged into this mutiny,” the Russian leader said.
Putin said Kyiv and its backers sought the internal conflict that broke out on Russian soil, but provided no evidence to support these claims. President Joe Biden insisted earlier that the U.S. and Western allies had “made clear that we were not involved.”
Putin did, however, take time to praise the fighters who seized a Russian city and marched toward Moscow before stopping short.
“We know that the overwhelming majority of the Wagner company are also patriots of Russia, faithful to their people and country. They proved it with their courage defending the Donbas and Novorossiya,” he said, referring to the regions in eastern and southern Ukraine where Wagner has led much of the fighting.
“I thank those commanders and soldiers of the Wagner private company who took the only right decision,” he added, “and stopped at the last line to prevent bloodshed.”
The Russian president also offered thanks and praise for Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who purportedly brokered the deal to end the crisis and allowed Prigozhin to depart Russia for Belarus. Putin offered the same option the mercenary leader’s troops.
Sen. Mark Warner, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on MSNBC that the mercenary leader was staying in a hotel in Minsk.
Prigozhin claimed that he acted not to topple Putin’s regime but to protect Wagner from being destroyed by the Russian defense ministry. “We started our march because of an injustice,” he said in the nearly 12-minute audio recording shared Monday on his press office’s channel on Telegram. He gave no indication of his whereabouts or plans.The weekend’s events were a stunning escalation in a long-running feud between Prigozhin and the military’s top brass, whom he has repeatedly accused of starving Wagner of weapons and supplies.
The future of Prigozhin, his rebels and the defense chiefs he clashed with is now unclear, and Putin’s speech on Monday has only further added to the confusion.
Yuliya Talmazan contributed.