Wagner mercenary leader taunts Russian military in defiant audio after mutiny

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The leader of the Wagner mercenary group defended his short-lived insurrection in a boastful audio statement Monday, but uncertainty still swirled about his fate, as well as that of senior Russian military leaders, the impact on the war in Ukraine, and even the political future of President Vladimir Putin.

In an 11-minute audio statement, Yevgeny Prigozhin said he acted “to prevent the destruction of the Wagner private military company,” and said he acted in response to an attack on a Wagner camp that killed some 30 of his fighters.

“We started our march because of an injustice,” Prigozhin said in the recording that gave no details about where he was or what his future plans were.

A feud between the Wagner Group leader and Russia’s military brass that has festered throughout the war erupted into a mutiny that saw the mercenaries leave Ukraine to seize a military headquarters in a southern Russian city and roll seemingly unopposed for hundreds of miles toward Moscow, before turning around, after fewer than 24 hours had passed on Saturday.

The Kremlin said it had made a deal for Prigozhin to move to Belarus and receive amnesty, along with his soldiers. There was no confirmation of his whereabouts Monday, although a popular Russian news channel on Telegram reported he was seen at a hotel in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

In his statement, Prigozhin taunted the Russian military, calling his march a “master class” on how it should have carried out the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. He also mocked the Russian military for failing to protect the country, pointing out security breaches that allowed Wagner to march 780 kilometers (500 miles) without facing resistance and block all military units on its way.

The bullish statement did not clarify what would ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces under the deal purportedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Screen capture from video of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu speaking to officers as he inspects a command post of one of the formations of the Zapad (West) group of Russian troops at an undisclosed location of Ukraine, June 26, 2023. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Though his mutiny was brief, it was not bloodless. Russian media reported that several military helicopters and a military communications plane were shot down by Wagner forces, killing at least 15. Prigozhin expressed regret for downing the aircraft, but said they were bombing his convoys.

Russia’s Defense Ministry has denied attacking Wagner’s camp, and the US had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time, suggesting the revolt was planned.

Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency cited unidentified sources in the Prosecutor General’s office as saying the criminal case against Prigozhin has not been closed, despite earlier Kremlin statements. The Interfax news agency carried a similar report.

Should the case continue, Prigozhin’s presence in Belarus — a staunch Kremlin ally — would offer little protection against arrest and extradition.

Some Russian lawmakers called for his head.

Andrei Gurulev, a retired general and current lawmaker, who has rowed with the mercenary leader, said Prigozhin and his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin, a former military officer who runs Wagner, deserve “a bullet in the head.”

“I firmly believe that traitors in wartime must be executed,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a video address in Moscow, Russia, June 26, 2023. (Russian Presidential Press Service via AP)

It was unclear what resources Prigozhin has to draw on, and how much of his substantial wealth he can access. Police searching his St. Petersburg office on the day of the rebellion found 4 billion rubles ($48 million) in trucks outside the building, according to Russian media reports confirmed by the Wagner boss. He claimed the money was intended to pay his soldiers’ families.

Russian media reported that Wagner offices in several Russian cities had reopened on Monday and the company had resumed enlisting recruits.

In a return to at least superficial normality, Moscow’s mayor announced an end to the “counterterrorism regime” imposed on the capital Saturday, when troops and armored vehicles set up checkpoints on the outskirts and authorities tore up roads leading into the city.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made his first public appearance since the uprising that demanded his ouster, in a video aimed at projecting a sense of order after the country’s most serious political crisis in decades.

The Defense Ministry video of Shoigu came as Russian media speculated that he and other military leaders have lost Putin’s confidence and could be replaced.

Shoigu was shown in a helicopter and then meeting with officers at a military headquarters in Ukraine in video broadcast on Russian media, including state-controlled television. It was unclear when it was shot.

General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, also a main target of Prigozhin’s ire, has not appeared in public.

Before the uprising, Prigozhin had blasted Shoigu and Gerasimov with expletive-ridden insults for months, attacking them for failing to provide his troops with enough ammunition during the fight for the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.

Prigozhin’s rift with the military dates back years, to Russia’s intervention in Syria, where Wagner forces also were active.

Some analysts saw Prigozhin’s revolt as a desperate move to save Wagner from being dismantled after an order that all private military companies sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1.

Prigozhin said in his statement that the majority of his fighters refused to come under the Defense Ministry’s command, and the force planned to hand over the military equipment it was using in Ukraine on June 30, after pulling out of Ukraine and gathering in Rostov-on-Don. Prigozhin claimed an attack that killed his fighters outraged the commanders and they decided to move sooner.

Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said on Twitter that Prigozhin’s mutiny “wasn’t a bid for power or an attempt to overtake the Kremlin,” but a desperate move, in light of his escalating rift with Russia’s military leadership.

While Prigozhin could get out of the crisis alive, he does not have a political future in Russia under Putin, Stanovaya said.

Ukrainian soldiers fire towards Russian positions on the frontline in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, June 24, 2023. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Alex Younger, former head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency, said “everyone comes out of this weaker.”

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.

Russian media and commentators speculated that Shoigu could be replaced, but that Putin, who avoids making decisions under pressure, would likely wait before announcing a shakeup.

It was not yet clear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for the war in Ukraine, where Western officials say Russia’s troops suffer low morale. Wagner’s forces were key to Russia’s only land victory in months, in Bakhmut.

The UK Ministry of Defense said Monday that Ukraine had “gained impetus” in its push around Bakhmut, making progress north and south of the town. Ukrainian forces claimed to have retaken Rivnopil, a village in an area of southeast Ukraine that has seen heavy fighting.

US President Joe Biden and leaders of several of Ukraine’s European allies discussed events in Russia over the weekend, but Western officials have been muted in their public comments.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told broadcaster RT that US Ambassador Lynne Tracy contacted Russian representatives Saturday to stress that the US was not involved in the mutiny and considered it an internal Russian matter. There was no immediate confirmation from the US, although Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that US officials had “engaged” with Russia to stress the importance of protecting US citizens and interests.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday that “the events over the weekend are an internal Russian matter.” The UK said “issues of regime in Russia are for Russia to resolve, first and foremost.”

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said 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,” Borrell said. “The monster is acting against his creator.”

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