Russian defense minister makes 1st video appearance since Wagner Group rebellion

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Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made his first public appearance since a mercenary uprising demanded his ouster, inspecting troops in Ukraine Monday in a video aimed at projecting a sense of order after a weekend that saw armed rebels seize a Russian city and march seemingly unopposed on the capital.

Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin announced an end to the “counter-terrorism regime” imposed on the capital Saturday, during which troops and armored vehicles set up checkpoints on the edges of the city and authorities tore up roads leading into the city.

Shoigu is one of three powerful Russian military leaders whose diverging interests erupted into mutiny when thousands of Wagner Group mercenaries headed from Ukraine deep into Russia, before turning around Saturday after less than 24 hours.

He is the first to appear publicly since then, in video released by the Defense Ministry that was widely picked up by Russian media, including state-controlled television. It was unclear when it was filmed.

Neither Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin nor General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov — like Shoigu, a target of Prigozhin’s ire — has been seen or heard in public since then. Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t made any public appearances either.

The Defense Ministry released a video showing Shoigu flying in a helicopter and then attending a meeting with military officers at a military headquarters in Ukraine, showing the minister for the first time since Prigozhin declared a “march of justice” to oust the defense minister and Gerasimov late Friday, during which the mercenaries captured the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and then marched on Moscow.

The rebellion ended on Saturday when Prigozhin ordered his troops back. The Kremlin said it had made a deal that the mercenary chief will move to Belarus and receive an amnesty, along with his soldiers. The mutiny marked the biggest challenge to President Vladimir Putin in more than 20 years of rule.

As Wagner’s convoy drove out of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don after its brief occupation on Saturday, led by Prigozhin in an SUV, someone asked how he viewed the result of his revolt, according to a video posted later on Russian social media.

“It’s normal, we have cheered everyone up,” the mercenary chief responded.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, right, sits inside a military vehicle posing for a selfie photo with a local civilian on a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023, prior to leaving an area of the headquarters of the Southern Military District (AP Photo)

It was unclear what would ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces. Few details of the deal were released either by the Kremlin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who brokered it. Prigozhin’s whereabouts have been unclear since he drove out of Rostov-on-Don in an SUV Saturday.

Before starting the revolt, Prigozhin had blasted Shoigu and army chief Gerasimov with expletive-ridden insults for months, attacking them for failing to provide his troops with enough ammunition during the battle for Bakhmut, the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.

Putin stood back from the rift, and Shoigu and Gerasimov remained mum, possibly reflecting uncertainty about Putin’s support. Observers said that by failing to end the feud Putin had encouraged Prigozhin to dramatically up the stakes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, speaks with Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, after a meeting with senior military officers in Moscow, Russia, December 21, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Alex Younger, former head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency, said it appeared that “neither side was in control” during the rebellion.

He told the BBC that Prigozhin “didn’t have a plan, he didn’t have enough people” to succeed, while Putin looked indecisive, first vowing to crush the rebels then striking a deal.

“Everyone comes out of this weaker,” Younger said.

Asked by reporters Saturday whether Putin still trusts Shoigu, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded he wasn’t aware of any changes in the president’s attitude. Commenting on whether any changes in military leadership were discussed during negotiations with Prigozhin, Peskov responded that personnel changes were the exclusive prerogative of Putin as the commander-in-chief and so it wasn’t a subject for discussion.

Russian media and commentators speculated that Putin could replace Shoigu with Alexei Dyumin, the governor of the Tula region who had previously served as a a Putin bodyguard and then a deputy defense minister. They noted that Putin, who avoids making decisions under pressure, would likely wait before announcing a shakeup.

Prigozhin’s rift with the top military brass dates back years to the Russian military intervention in Syria, where Wagner Group was also active. It dramatically escalated in recent months amid the fighting for Bakhmut.

An aerial view of Bakhmut, the site of the heaviest battles with Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, June 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Libkos)

The US had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time. That conflicts with Prigozhin’s claim that his rebellion was a response to an attack on his field camps in Ukraine on Friday by the Russian military, which he said killed a large number of his men. The Defense Ministry denied attacking the camps.

US Rep. Mike Turner, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Prigozhin’s march on Moscow appeared to have been planned “for a significant amount of time.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the weekend’s events as “extraordinary,” recalling that 16 months ago Putin appeared poised to seize the capital of Ukraine and now he has had to defend Moscow from forces led by his onetime protege.

“I think we’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian façade,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

It was not yet clear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for the war in Ukraine. But it resulted in some of the best forces fighting for Russia being pulled from the battlefield: the Wagner troops, who had shown their effectiveness in scoring the Kremlin’s only land victory in months, in Bakhmut, and Chechen soldiers sent to stop them on the approach to Moscow.

The UK Ministry of Defense said Ukraine had “gained impetus” in its push around Bakhmut, making progress north and south of the town.

“There has been little evidence that Russia maintains any significant ground forces operational level reserves which could be used to reinforce against the multiple threats it is now facing in widely separated sectors,” it said in a daily assessment of the war.

A Ukrainian soldier lies on the ground as a tank fires toward Russian positions at the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, June 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Libkos)

The Wagner forces’ largely unopposed, rapid advance also exposed vulnerabilities in Russia’s security and military forces. The mercenary soldiers were reported to have downed several helicopters and a military communications plane. The Defense Ministry has not commented.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, speaking to reporters before chairing a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, where they will discuss more support for Ukraine, said that the revolt showed that the war is “cracking Russia’s political system.”

“The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now,” Borrel said. “The monster is acting against his creator. The political system is showing fragilities, and the military power is cracking.”

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