Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday denounced the leaders of the Wagner mercenary group for leading an armed uprising and thanked the Russian people for uniting behind the government during the crisis.
The mercenary group, under the leadership of Yevgeny Prigozhin, led an armed uprising deep into Russia over the weekend. The force abandoned its position on the Ukrainian front line, seized the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and marched toward Moscow. Prigozhin has denied that he sought to oust Russian leadership and insisted the march was to protest to the Ministry of Defense’s plan to dismantle Wagner.
Putin, however, did not mince words in condemning Prigozhin’s actions during his Monday address, accusing him of playing into the hands of Ukraine and Russia’s western adversaries.
“The mutineers betrayed the country, their people, and they betrayed those whom they dragged into this affair, whom they pushed to shoot at their comrades. It is this fratricide that the neo-Nazis in Kyiv and their western masters wanted to see,” he said. Russia often portrays the Ukrainian government as being “neo-Nazi” in nature and the official rationale for the ongoing invasion is the “de-Nazification” of the country.
Putin further excoriated the mutineers for their reckless actions during a time of intense international scrutiny of Moscow.
“Despite their loss of reason, the participants could not not understand that, including the fact that they engaged in criminal actions, splitting apart the country, which is now facing colossal external threats and pressures,” he continued.
Prigozhin and his men ultimately stopped short of taking Moscow, however. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko reportedly managed to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the affair. Russia has promised amnesty to the Wagner forces and offered them the opportunity to either go home, to redeploy to Belarus, or to sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense. Putin, in his speech, laid much of the blame for the uprising on Wagner’s senior leadership, but celebrated the military contributions of the group’s rank-and-file. He did, however, contend that Russia would have stopped the mercenaries had they moved forward with their uprising.
“We know that most soldiers and the commanders of the Wagner group are also patriots of Russia. They proved this with their courage in combat, in liberating the Donbass and Novorossiya. They were used blindly,” he added. “I thank the soldiers and commanders of the Wagner group who made the only correct decision and refused to engage in the fratricide and who stopped at the last line.”
He further vowed to uphold his promise of amnesty and permit Wagner troops to decide their own fates.
“Those who wish may go to Belarus. The promise I gave will be fulfilled,” he insisted, adding a note of thanks to Lukashenko for his aid in resolving the crisis.
Much of the speech touted the unity of the Russian people, whom he vowed would not waver in the face of western pressure.
“Practically all Russian society, everyone, were united by their sense of responsibility for the fate of the country,” he said. “The law enforcement authorities and the military were loyal to their oath and to their people and to their duty – the courage and sacrifice of the pilots who died prevented the tragedy on a national scale – it is the patriotic spirit of people, the consolidation of the entire Russian society that played the deciding role in these days.”
The Wagner mutiny occurred amid a major Ukrainian counteroffensive, though Kyiv’s forces largely failed to seize on the confusion at the front to reclaim significant territory.