Vladimir Putin accuses Wagner Group leaders of betraying Russia

Russia’s president insists the insurrection was doomed from the outset in his first public comments since the shortlived mutiny

By Polina Ivanova and Lucy Fisher in London and Mex Seddon in Riga for The Financial Times

Russian president Vladimir Putin has condemned the organisers of last weekend’s shortlived mutiny, saying they had betrayed their country and the fighters in their command.

In his first public comments since the end of warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin’s armed uprising on Saturday, Putin told 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 on Monday insisted Wagner’s revolt had been doomed to fail from the outset. 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”, adding most of the group’s fighters were “patriots of Russia” who had been “used” by their command.

The head of the Wagner militia has denied trying to overthrow the Russian government. Reiterating his criticism of the country’s defence establishment, 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 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 war in 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.”

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. “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.”

Prigozhin’s revolt 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. “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, army chief of staff, and Sergei Shoigu, defence minister, Prigozhin’s main hate figures within the Russian system.

State media reported on Monday that Prigozhin still faced prosecution, despite the Kremlin saying at the weekend that the legal case against Prigozhin “will be ended”.

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.

Wagner was willing to proceed as ordered, Prigozhin claimed, and was packing up its military equipment last week, with plans to head to Rostov-on-Don in a convoy on June 30 to hand over everything to the army.

Then on Friday, he claimed, Wagner base camps were hit with air strikes by the Russian military, killing more than two dozen of his troops. A similar account was denied by the defence ministry on Friday evening.

Prigozhin said the militia not only managed to seize Rostov-on-Don, a major southern city and military headquarters, 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.”

Monday – Vladimir Putin is reaping the fruits of his own misjudgments – FT Editorial Board

Russia’s president withstood a bizarre mutiny but appears weakened.

By The Editorial Board of The Financial Times

Vladimir Putin has survived the most serious threat to his authority in two decades as Russia’s paramount leader. Yet the aborted rebellion led by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner paramilitaries has laid bare the utter folly of the war Putin unleashed against his neighbour. The Kremlin is bogged down in a conflict it cannot win, which has taken a grave toll on its economic future, turned it into a pariah for western countries, and brought armed insurgents to within a couple of hours’ drive of Moscow. The origins of Saturday’s mutiny and the “deal” that seemingly defused it are cloaked in fog. But it is hard not to conclude that Putin is left weakened.

The war against Ukraine was an exercise in miscalculation and hubris from the start. Putin’s neo-imperialist escapade overestimated his own army’s capabilities and underrated the determination both of Kyiv’s forces to defend their homeland with their blood, and of international democracies to penalise Russia economically and provide military aid to Ukraine.

The Russian leader compounded his error by contracting out part of the war to a private army led by an ex-convict. Once tensions exploded between Wagner’s thuggish warlord and the state military and its hapless leadership, this rebounded on Putin personally.

A conspiracy theory in Russia suggests the weekend’s events could have been bizarre theatre aimed at allowing Putin to project power and lure other would-be competitors to break cover. This seems far-fetched. The president appears to have been openly confronted by a former ally. In an awkward TV address, he spoke of a stab in the back and drew striking parallels with the collapse of the tsarist empire in 1917. Prigozhin was persuaded to leave Russia for Belarus, presumably through menace or bribery. Yet this required intervention by Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko, for whom Putin has in the past scarcely hidden his contempt.

Prigozhin’s mutiny broke a taboo against challenging Russia’s mafia-style leader, and pierced the veil of his invulnerability. Rather than relying on fear and the destruction of all potential opponents within Moscow’s elites, Putin has presided as the ultimate arbiter between factions — the one who can hold things together while keeping the support of the Russian people.

A man until recently presented as a nationalist hero, moreover, in his video rant on Friday debunked the Kremlin’s entire narrative behind the Ukraine war. Prigozhin said Russia had faced no immediate threat from Ukraine when Putin launched his invasion last year, and that ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine were now being killed or driven from their home by Russian forces.

Kyiv says there has been little sign of disruptions to Moscow’s invading army over the weekend. But Russia’s military effort may be sapped by the loss of Wagner as a brutal fighting force — without the tyrannical Prigozhin on the ground to rally them, and its forces dispersed or absorbed into the regular military. The instability at home could yet weaken resolve and provide openings for Ukraine’s counter-offensive.

Putin’s response might be to fall back on the terror tactics that have served Soviet and Russian leaders for centuries: stepping up the crackdown that has snuffed out independent media and banished prominent opposition figures to the modern gulag. The weekend’s unrest serves as a reminder, too, that if Putin is ever toppled, it could be by more hardline elements determined to prosecute the war in Ukraine in still more vicious fashion. For now, though, a president once seen as having led Russia out of the mayhem of its post-Soviet transition is reaping the fruits of his own calamitous misjudgments.

Sunday night – Warlord Prigozhin to leave Russia as part of deal to end insurrection

Belarus brokers agreement with paramilitary group to end first coup attempt in Russia for three decades.

By Max Seddon in Riga, Polina Ivanova in London and Henry Foy in Brussels for the Financial Times

Russian warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin has agreed to leave Russia for Belarus as part of a deal to end his armed uprising, with charges against him to be dropped, the Kremlin said.

Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, said that fighters from Prigozhin’s militia would not be charged “because of their deeds on the front”. He added that some Wagner fighters who “came to their senses” and had not taken part in the uprising would sign contracts with the Russian defence ministry.

PREMIUM: RW Johnson explains South Africa’s “too obvious” links to the Wagner Group. Click here.

Prigozhin announced on Saturday evening that Wagner mercenaries had abandoned their attempted insurrection just hours before a potential assault on Moscow. It was the first coup attempt in Russia for three decades.

In a deal brokered by Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, Prigozhin said his convoy of troops, weapons and tanks would stop their journey towards Moscow and return to their bases after 24 hours of crisis in which the Kremlin scrambled to turn the capital into a fortress to fight off the rebels.

“Right now the moment has come when blood could be spilled. Therefore, understanding all the responsibility for the fact that Russian blood will be spilled on one side, we are turning our convoy around and going back to our basecamps, according to the plan,” Prigozhin said in a voice memo posted to social media.

He did not specify what the “plan” was.

Putin had asked Lukashenko to mediate in the hope of avoiding any further bloodshed because the Belarusian leader has known Prigozhin for 20 years, Peskov said.

Peskov described Saturday’s uprising — in which Wagner shot down several army helicopters, captured a major army command post and marched most of the way from the Ukrainian border to Moscow — as “fairly difficult” and “full of tragic events”. But he said “there were higher goals of escaping bloodshed and internal confrontation”.

Putin will not make any further comments on the incident, Peskov said, adding that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would continue.

Wagner paramilitaries loyal to Prigozhin began to leave Rostov on Saturday evening, according to state newswire Tass. Video posted online by state media and Wagner-affiliated social media channels showed the fighters thanking locals, who cheered, clapped and chanted in support.

The governor of a Russian province on the route of Prigozhin’s uprising said officials would begin to roll back security restrictions.

Igor Artamonov, the governor of Lipetsk, said the region would “start to cancel the restrictions introduced today” and reopen federal highways that had been closed. He said they had already begun rebuilding roads damaged in the advance.

“We all stood up to defend the interests of our country with honour and dignity. Lipetsk region will not let the president and Russia down,” Artamonov posted on social media.

Putin had earlier vowed to crush the insurrection and accused Wagner of “treason” that posed “a deadly threat to our statehood” comparable to the 1917 revolution that led to the collapse of imperial Russia.

Prigozhin’s attempted mutiny followed months of increasingly bitter infighting between the warlord and the leaders of Russia’s armed forces, exacerbated by 16 months of war against Ukraine.

The conflict has failed to achieve its aims, hamstrung the country’s economy, cost tens of thousands of lives and created a dangerous patchwork of competing militias and security forces.

Prigozhin had previously said his Wagner forces no longer wanted to live “under corruption, lies and bureaucracy”.

Lukashenko’s press service said on Saturday that the agreement came after the Belarusian leader spent “the entire day” negotiating with Prigozhin after “agreeing on joint actions” with Putin and “additionally clarifying the situation through his own channels”.

It said Prigozhin had accepted [Lukashenko’s] request to “stop the movement of armed men from the Wagner company on Russian territory and [take] further steps to de-escalate the situation”.

“At the moment, there is an absolutely advantageous and acceptable way to defuse the situation on the table, with security guarantees for Wagner’s fighters,” the press service added.

Belarus said Putin thanked Lukashenko. “The president of Russia supported and thanked his Belarusian colleague for his work,” it said.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar said Kyiv’s troops had “launched an offensive in several directions at the same time” on Saturday, apparently seizing an opportunity to counterattack against Moscow’s forces while the power struggle was under way in Russia.

“In the direction of Orikhovo-Vasylivka, Bakhmut, Bohdanivka, Yahidne, Klishchiivka, Kurdyumivka . . . There is progress in all directions,” Maliar said. “The enemy is on the defensive, making great efforts to stop our offensive actions,” she continued. “At the same time, the enemy is suffering significant losses in personnel, weapons and equipment.”

Maliar said that several Russian attacks in the east, backed with heavy artillery and air power, had been repelled.

An adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy mocked Prigozhin for his failure to oust the Russian president.

“Prigozhin’s phenomenal choice . . . you almost nullified Putin, took control of the central authorities, reached Moscow and suddenly . . . you retreat,” tweeted Mykhailo Podolyak.

Podolyak predicted that Prigozhin risked being assassinated, saying “for the fear that the Putin elite has experienced in the past 24 hours, this order will certainly be executed”.

Additional reporting by Christopher Miller and Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv

Saturday night – Prigozhin turns forces back in deal with Kremlin to drop charges

Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin halted his advance toward Moscow and pulled his fighters back, defusing what had become the biggest threat to Vladimir Putin’s grip on Russia in his almost quarter-century rule.

By Bloomberg News

(Bloomberg) — Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin halted his advance toward Moscow and pulled his fighters back, defusing what had become the biggest threat to Vladimir Putin’s grip on Russia in his almost quarter-century rule.

As part of a deal to end the uprising the Russian president had personally guaranteed that Prigozhin would be allowed to leave for neighboring Belarus and authorities would drop criminal mutiny charges against him and his fighters, according to the Kremlin.

There was no immediate confirmation from Prigozhin of the pact, which Russia said was brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a staunch Putin ally.

“We were able to resolve the situation without further losses, without further increasing the level of tension,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

The events capped a day of escalating drama that saw Prigozhin take convoys of his fighters to within hours of the capital virtually unchallenged, even after Putin accused the mercenary group of “treason” in a TV broadcast to the nation Saturday. 

By allowing him to leave unpunished, Putin risks the appearance that he was forced to give in to the armed challenge of a man once derisively known as the president’s chef for his Kremlin catering contracts.

Prigozhin’s rebellion – which Putin in his speech called “a deadly threat ot our statehood” – jolted a nation trying to sustain a war in Ukraine that’s the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II. 

It unfolded against the backdrop of a Ukrainian counteroffensive across some of the area where Wagner’s troops deployed for months in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle. The showdown also had echoes in Russian history, where leaders including Tsar Nicholas II and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev were ousted after failed military adventures.

The US and Europe had been watching the latest events closely, with President Joe Biden getting regular briefings as officials sought to interpret the fast-moving events.

“Everything indicates there’s de-escalation in Russia,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said in Warsaw late Saturday. 

Prigozhin’s troops pulled out of positions they’d taken up early Saturday in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, Tass reported. Moscow planned to lift tight security measures imposed earlier when the mercenary group was heading for the capital.

Even if Putin has succeeded in avoiding a conflict, Prigozhin’s dramatic challenge has shaken the Russian president’s image of total political control. 

“We underestimated Prigozhin but now we’ve clearly overestimated Putin,” Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R.Politik, wrote in Telegram. “This is a very powerful defeat for him.”

There was no immediate word on whether Putin had agreed to Prigozhin’s demand that he replace his defense minister and top military commander, whom the mercenary blames for botching the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin said the issue wasn’t discussed in the talks with Lukashenko Saturday, according to Tass.

“In 24 hours we got to within 200 km of Moscow,” Prigozhin said late Saturday in an audio message on Telegram. “Now is the moment when blood could be shed. Therefore, taking full responsibility for the fact that Russian blood could be spilled, we are turning our columns around and returning to our field camps.”

He didn’t indicate how far back they would withdraw or provide other details. “They wanted to disband PMC Wagner,” he said in the message, without elaborating.

After vowing to lead “a march of justice” on Moscow, Prigozhin posted a video of himself early Saturday at what he said were military offices under Wagner’s control in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, one of the main operational centers for Russian forces deployed in Ukraine. The claim couldn’t be independently confirmed. 

His forces later advanced along the route of the main M4 highway linking Moscow to Rostov. Videos appeared on social media showing military helicopters flying over the city of Voronezh where a fuel storage depot was rocked by an explosion. Regional Governor Alexander Gusev said the depot was on fire, without giving an explanation.

Wagner’s forces were then seen moving through the Lipetsk region about 350 kilometers (218 miles) from Moscow, Governor Igor Artamonov said on Telegram, urging residents to stay in their homes. The governor of nearby Kaluga announced travel restrictions into the region that’s about 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the capital.

Putin didn’t name Prigozhin during his five-minute broadcast in which he said “excessive ambitions and personal interests led to treason” against the state and “the cause for which Wagner fighters and commanders fought and died.” He drew a comparison with divisions in Russia during World War I that led to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and civil war. 

US President Joe Biden earlier Saturday held talks on the unfolding situation in Russia with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The leaders also affirmed their “unwavering support” for Ukraine, according to a White House statement.

With the Wagner fighters approaching, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin had declared Monday a non-working day for all but essential services and advised residents to avoid traveling around the city, saying roads may be blocked off in the “complicated” situation. 

Officials earlier announced a “counter-terrorist regime” in Moscow and its surrounding region as well as in Voronezh region. Photographs appeared on social media of roadblocks on approaches to the capital.

Saturday afternoon – Putin vows to crush Prigozhin’s Wagner forces advancing on Moscow

Dramatic turnaround in the Ukraine War as the founder of Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group says a convoy of his forces is heading for capital to oust army leadership after alleging that Russian Military’s gunships attacked his forces. Vladimir Putin has accused the Wagner leader of treason and says he will grant amnesty to Wagner fighters who “liquidate” their leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.

PREMIUM: RW Johnson explains South Africa’s “too obvious” links to the Wagner Group. Click here.

By Max Seddon and Anastasia Stognei in Riga, Alex Barker in London and Henry Foy in Brussels for the Financial Times

Vladimir Putin has vowed to crush an armed insurrection led by the warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, describing the rebel militia making their way through southern Russia towards Moscow as a treasonous “stab in the back”.

Facing the first coup attempt in Russia for three decades, the president said he had given “necessary orders” to tackle the Wagner paramilitary group with “decisive measures” to retake the city of Rostov-on-Don.

Russian military helicopters fired on a convoy of Wagner troops, weapons and armoured vehicles including tanks heading north towards the capital, according to unverified videos published on social media. At 1400 GMT the convoy was around 350km from Moscow’s outer ring road, where Russian troops have set up checkpoints.

The insurgency is the most serious threat to Putin’s more than two-decade long rule, and comes after months of public infighting between caterer-turned-mercenary Prigozhin and the country’s armed forces over what he described as Russia’s calamitous and botched invasion of Ukraine.

The rapid advances by Prigozhin’s forces through his home country sparked an emergency call between G7 nations and enhanced security measures in Nato countries bordering Russia, which possesses one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals.

The crisis was a “window of opportunity” for Kyiv as it seeks to push ahead with a counter-offensive to liberate territory occupied by Russian troops, Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister said, adding that the decision to invade Ukraine had triggered “the inevitable degradation of the Russian state”.

Putin’s pledge to crush the attempted coup on Saturday morning came hours after Prigozhin announced he had “blockaded” Rostov and the headquarters of Russia’s military command centre, responsible for the Ukraine operations, as armed, masked men with tanks and armoured vehicles surrounded government buildings.

Putin’s grave address, which did not mention Prigozhin by name, suggests the president has left no room for compromise with his former acolyte. “What we are dealing with is treason. Unchecked ambitions and personal interests have brought about betrayal of our country and our people,” Putin said.

Within hours, Prigozhin issued a defiant response, saying his Wagner force no longer wanted to live “under corruption, lies, and bureaucracy”.

Sixteen months of war against Ukraine has hamstrung Russia’s economy thanks to a barrage of western sanctions and an exodus of foreign capital, cost tens of thousands of lives and created a dangerous patchwork of competing militias and security forces.

In an audio message released by his press service, Prigozhin added: “On the subject of betraying the motherland, the president is deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our motherland. We . . . will fight on.”

The head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, said on Saturday afternoon that what he described as an attempt “to shake society and fan the flames of a fratricidal civil war has failed”.

Naryshkin, a key ally of Putin, described Prigozhin’s uprising “the most horrible crime,” and urged citizens to rally around the president.

Earlier on Saturday, Prigozhin was filmed walking into the Rostov military headquarters before ranting at a deputy defence minister and a senior general about his attempt to oust the army’s leadership.

The extraordinary decision to launch a motorised assault on Moscow was part of what Prigozhin said was a “march of justice” against defence minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, commander of Russia’s invasion forces, whom he has accused of mishandling the Ukraine invasion.

“We want [Gerasimov] and Shoigu. Until they’re here, we’ll stay, blockade Rostov and head to Moscow,” Prigozhin told deputy defence minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Vladimir Alekseyev, deputy head of Russian military intelligence. “We are saving Russia.” Prigozhin claimed Wagner had opened fire on Russian forces and shot down three army helicopters.

Western leaders have so far responded to the crisis with caution. The EU moved to activate its crisis response centre after a call between the bloc’s foreign affairs chief and G7 foreign ministers, while Nato said it was “monitoring the situation.”

During his address, Putin likened Prigozhin’s “treason” to the Russian Revolution in 1917, when the Tsar was overthrown and the Bolsheviks took power in the face of popular unrest over the first world war.

“Intrigues, spats and politicking behind the army and people’s back ended in an enormous collapse, the destruction of the army and the fall of the state, the loss of huge territories, and in the end, the tragedy of civil war,” he said. “We won’t let that happen again.”

Putin acknowledged the situation in Rostov was “complicated” with “the work of civil and military command is essentially blockaded”. But he said security forces had been ordered to “stabilise” the city.

The president also said he had ordered “additional measures of an anti-terrorist nature” in Moscow and “several other regions”. The step essentially puts the FSB, Russia’s main security service, in charge of the areas and gives them the right to detain, raid and use force.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, said the events had laid bare “Russia’s weakness”.

“The longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain and problems it will have for itself later,” he tweeted. “Everyone who chooses the path of evil destroys himself.”