The head of the Wagner militia has denied trying to overthrow the Russian government but redoubled his criticism of the country’s defence establishment in his first public comments since Saturday’s abortive march on Moscow.
But Russian president Vladimir Putin, speaking publicly on Monday for the first time since the abortive Wagner uprising, said its organisers had betrayed their country. He called most of the group’s fighters “patriots of Russia” who had been “used” by their command.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said in an 11-minute voice recording posted on Telegram on Monday that his goal had been to protest against a recent decision to disband Wagner and demonstrate the weakness of Russia’s domestic defences.
“We didn’t have the goal of toppling the existing regime, which is lawfully elected, as we have said many times,” said Prigozhin, who did not refer to Putin by name.
Instead, he wanted to “prevent the destruction” of the paramilitary group and to hold to account those who, “with their unprofessional actions, made a huge amount of mistakes” during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He said that if the regular army had received the same level of training and morale as Wagner, the invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24 last year, “may have taken no more than a day”.
“We demonstrated the level of organisation that the Russian army should have,” Prigozhin said, claiming that his forces crossed a total of 780km and stopped just 200km short of Moscow. “It was a masterclass in how February 24 2022 should’ve looked.”
Putin, meanwhile, in an address on state TV, asked Wagner paramilitaries to sign contracts with Russia’s defence ministry, go home, or leave the country for Belarus.
The Russian president’s angry five-minute speech insisted the Wagner revolt had been doomed to fail from the outset, but he suggested the Kremlin had not yet fully resolved it.
In his appeal to Wagner’s rank-and-file, Putin said the mutiny’s organisers had “betrayed the country and those who were with them” but said most of the group’s fighters were “patriots of Russia” who had been “used”.
Until his own message on Monday afternoon, Prigozhin had also not been heard from since he announced that his convoy would turn back rather than continuing on to Moscow. He was last seen in the back of a vehicle driving away from the southern army headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city that his military had taken over on Saturday before also pulling back.
“Our decision to turn around came from two important factors,” he added. “The first was that we did not want to spill Russian blood. The second, we were marching to demonstrate our protest, not to unseat the government.”
However, Prigozhin’s attempted uprising on Saturday has been widely seen as the most serious threat to Putin’s rule since he took office 23 years ago.
“This was part of a struggle within the Russian system,” US president Joe Biden said on Monday, while also saying: “We had nothing to do with it.”
Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, described Prigozhin as “the monster acting against his creator” and said the weekend’s chaos proved that Putin’s “military power is cracking”.
But Ben Wallace, UK defence secretary, played down the impact on Putin’s authority, maintaining that “we shouldn’t necessarily over-credit the destabilisation, that somehow this is a massive derailment of the Kremlin”.
Speaking to the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, Wallace emphasised that the war in Ukraine was still being prosecuted by Valery Gerasimov, chief of staff, and Sergei Shoigu, defence minister, Prigozhin’s main hate figures within the Russian system.
However, the UK defence minister added that Prigozhin’s ability to advance on Saturday with “only about 2,500 people” had exposed how “threadbare” and “stretched” Russia’s reserves were.
The Kremlin said at the weekend that the legal case against Prigozhin “will be ended” and claimed he had agreed to leave for Belarus. However, on Monday state media reported that he still faced prosecution.
Prigozhin has railed against Gerasimov and Shoigu for many months, accusing them of killing tens of thousands of Russian soldiers through corruption and poor planning.
The long-running feud came to a head in June after laws were passed to make all irregular forces — of which Wagner is the largest and most prominent — pledge allegiance to the defence ministry while subsuming them into its structure.
Prigozhin said Wagner would have been disbanded by July 1. But commanders and fighters, he claimed, had not been keen to cross over to the regular army, considering its poor performance and the risk this posed to their own survival.
Yet Wagner was willing to proceed as ordered, Prigozhin claimed, and was packing up its military equipment last week, planning to head to Rostov-on-Don in convoy on June 30 to hand everything over to the army.
Then on Friday, he claimed, Wagner base camps had been hit with air strikes by the Russian military, killing over two dozen of its troops. A similar account was denied by the defence ministry on Friday evening.
“This was a trigger for us to decide to move out immediately,” Prigozhin said.
He said the militia not only managed to seize Rostov-on-Don, a main southern city and military HQ, but also managed to disarm the military obstacles placed in its way, and take over all the bases and airfields that lay in its path.
Residents, moreover, had been happy to see Wagner pass, Prigozhin claimed. “Civilians met us with Russian and Wagner flags . . . Many of them continue to write words of support, and others are disappointed that we stopped.”