Putin Says Russia Is United Behind Him After Ending Wagner Uprising

A visibly angry Vladimir V. Putin on Monday denounced as “blackmail” the weekend uprising by the Wagner mercenary group even as he defended his response to the uprising and hinted at leniency for those who took part, saying that “the whole of Russian society is united” around his reign.

Speaking publicly for the first time in two days, Mr Putin, at an address broadcast on Monday night, declining to name the Wagner boss behind the mutiny, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin. But the contempt is clear to those who appear to, in brief, threaten civil war and halt Russia's war effort in Ukraine, in which Ukrainian forces are counterattacking.

“They want Russians to fight each other,” said Mr. Putin, the president of Russia. “They rubbed their hands, dreaming of revenge for their failures at the front and during the so-called counterattack.”

Throughout the day, the Kremlin has attempted to project an atmosphere of normalcy, unity and stability, despite Putin's absence from the public eye after perhaps the most serious crisis of his two decades in power. When he finally did emerge, the Russian leader avoided some of the unanswered questions left by the uprising. Instead, at the heart of his five-minute speech on Monday was his insistence that he lead a country and government that presents a united front to all threats.

“Civil solidarity has shown that any blackmail, any attempt to create internal unrest, is doomed to failure,” he said.

The deal that abruptly ended the mutiny on Saturday, with Wagner's troops claiming they had reached within 125 miles of Moscow, called for Prigozhin to go into exile in Belarus rather than face punishment, according to a Kremlin spokesman. Mr. Putin suggested that Wagner fighters who do not wish to enlist with Russia's regular military could also go there.

After his speech, he was shown on television holding meetings with the defense and interior ministers, the attorney general, and the heads of the security services and the National Guard, to discuss how to respond to the episode.

Mr Prigozhin, until recently an important ally of Mr Putin, said in 11 minutes, a stream of awareness voice memo posted on the messaging app Telegram on Monday that the government was seeking to destroy Wagner, which he said would be effective. should disband by next Saturday.

“We are going to show our protest, and not to overthrow the government in this country,” he said of the quixotic push towards Moscow. But Kremlin officials called it an act of treason, not protest.

In his audio message on Monday, Mr. Prigozhin renewed his sharp criticism of Russian military leaders for their handling of the invasion, and accused them of turning back on his fighters as they prepared to surrender their heavy weapons.

“The aim of this campaign is to prevent the destruction of Wagner and to bring to justice those who, through their unprofessional actions, made many mistakes during this process,” he said.

It is unclear where Mr. Prigozhin is, or how he will be handled by a system that only criminalizes dissent, let alone armed rebellion. Kremlin statements over the weekend that he would be allowed to go into exile were contradicted on Monday by reports in several state-controlled news agencies that he still faces an investigation and the very real possibility of prosecution.

It's also unclear what will happen to its tens of thousands of fighters, some of Russia's most experienced and effective troops, or how it will affect the war in Ukraine. The government has required all irregular troops fighting for Russia in Ukraine to sign a contract with the Defense Ministry by July 1, meaning the end of Wagner's semi-independence, but it's unclear how many have done so or will do so.

Putin indirectly answered a question that many in Russia and abroad have been asking since the uprising began: Why wasn't it crushed, swiftly and mercilessly, by Russia's much larger military before Wagner could seize regional military bases and push hundreds of miles toward Moscow?

“From the start of the incident, on my direct instructions, steps were taken to avoid much bloodshed,” he said. “This will take time, including giving those who made a mistake a chance to change their minds.”

Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov said that the main M-4 highway – which was damaged over the weekend as Russian troops tried to slow Wagner's advance towards Moscow – had been repaired and all air and rail communications had been restored. The mayor of Moscow ended restrictions imposed as a result of the uprising and announced that the school's graduation ceremony would take place this weekend.

Bolstering its business-as-usual message, Russia released a silent video of Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu on Monday, signaling that he remains in office despite Mr Prigozhin's scathing criticism of the conduct of the war.

At the White House on Monday, President Biden said he had held a video meeting with allied leaders to discuss the insurgency, adding: “We made clear we were not involved. We have nothing to do with it. This is part of the struggle within the Russian system.”

The administration has repeatedly signaled that it wants Putin to have, as Biden put it, “no reason to blame this on the West and blame NATO,” which is supporting Ukraine with weapons, intelligence, training and finances. .

On the battlefields of Ukraine, where Kyiv forces are staging a counteroffensive to retake territory Russia captured last year, there has been no real change as a result of events in Russia, but some American officials and Western analysts say the Russian military could suffer.

“Overall, Russian morale is likely to be seriously negatively affected by the turmoil,” said Aditya Pareek, an analyst at Janes, a defense intelligence firm.

But Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior consultant at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said it was too early to measure the impact of the insurgency. On the front, Russian fire rates had not decreased, he said, and no major Russian troop rotations had been observed.

For months, Mr. Prigozhin, an ex-con who staked political connections into a multi-armed business empire, has directed a stream of sharp criticism at the Russian military establishment, while claiming that Wagner deserves sole credit for some of his successes in Ukraine. He accused military leaders of undermining the war effort with incompetence and infighting, while withholding needed supplies from Wagner. With a base of support among pro-war Russians, he was widely viewed as laying the foundation for some sort of political career.

But earlier this month, the Ministry of Defense issued a directive that troops do not regularly register with the military, and that order remains in place, despite Mr. Prigozhin to comply – a clear signal that Mr. Putin has sided with Mr. Shoigu and generals.

On Friday, Prigozhin accused the regular military of shelling Wagner's troops, killing dozens of them – a claim that has not been independently corroborated – and driving his troops into Rostov-on-Don, a major city in southern Russia, where Wagner seized control of the hub for military operations. in Ukraine.

The world watched in shock and fear as instability seemed to shake the world's most nuclear-armed nation. Putin on Saturday promised the harshest punishments for those who “knowingly choose the path of treason.”

But then Wagner's troop broke down, after Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, an ally of Putin and president of Belarus, stepped in to act as intermediary. Wagner's troops withdrew from Rostov-on-Don and the highway to Moscow, reportedly returning to their camp in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.

Valerie Hopkins reported from Berlin. Reporting contributed by Andres R. Martinez in seoul, Eric Schmitt in Washington, Ivan Nechepurenko in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Daniel Victor And Gabriela Sa Pesso in New York.