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In address to nation, Putin says Wagner soldiers who took part in revolt can join the army or go to Belarus

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in an unscheduled address to the nation on June 26 reiterated his offer of amnesty to fighters who took part in the revolt over the weekend but not to its ringleader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a sign of the Kremlin leader’s complete break with his former ally.

In a short speech, Putin said the fighters of Wagner mercenary group can either join the Russian army, go back home, or go to Belarus. He made no direct mention of Prigozhin, the 62-year old founder of Wagner once known as Putin’s chef,
but said the organizers of the revolt betrayed the Russian people.

“Today, you have the opportunity to continue serving Russia by entering into a contract with the Ministry of Defense or other law enforcement agencies, or to return to your family and friends. Whoever wants to can go to Belarus. The promise I made will be fulfilled,” Putin said. “I repeat: The choice is yours.”

Putin also used the speech to bolster his tarnished image as a popular leader in firm control of the country after citizens, officials, and officers did little to stop the mutiny and amid questions why the Kremlin leader took nearly a day to address the armed unrest.

He thanked the Russian people for unity and thanked commanders and soldiers of the mercenary group for avoiding bloodshed in what is widely seen as the greatest challenge to Putin’s 23 years of rule.

While making no mention of Prigozhin in his short remarks, he said the organizers of the revolt had betrayed the Russian people.

He warned that any attempt at blackmail or unrest in Russia would be “doomed to fail” and claimed the West wanted Russians to “kill each other.”

Putin’s speech came hours after Prigozhin claimed that he launched his mutiny on June 23 to stop the Kremlin from disbanding his group, which he claimed were the best fighters in Russia. He showed no repentance for his actions.

The Russian leader earlier this month backed plans by the Defense Ministry to consolidate control over mercenary groups in what many analysts said was a move directed at curtailing Prigozhin’s power. The plans were to go into effect on July 1.

U.S. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders said the brief uprising was part of a struggle within the Russian system. Biden said neither the United States nor its allies was involved.

Biden’s message was sent directly to the Russians through various diplomatic channels, White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters. He did not characterize Russia’s response.

Prigozhin said earlier that the intent of his troops’ march toward Moscow over the weekend was to highlight the incompetence of Russia’s military leadership in its war against Ukraine and not to overthrow the Russian government in what is widely seen as the greatest challenge to Putin’s 23 years of rule.

In his first public statement since abandoning the march just 200 kilometers from the Russian capital, Prigozhin continued to sound defiant in an 11-minute long audio clip on June 26, saying his progress was a “master class” on how Russia’s army should have carried out its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, noting multiple holes in military security that allowed his group to easily take control of cities as it proceeded toward Moscow.

Prigozhin did not reveal his current whereabouts, nor did he mention any details of a reported agreement brokered by Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka that is said to have granted him asylum in Belarus.

Thomas Graham, who served as Russia director on the White House National Security Council in the mid-2000s, told RFE/RL that the conflict between the Wagner group and the Russian leadership was far from over. As a general rule, he said, Putin doesn’t let traders get off lightly.

“If I were [Prigozhin], I’d be looking over my shoulder, constantly,” said Graham, who is now at analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Belarus wouldn’t be the safest place to be. Lukashenka at the end of the day can’t protect him.”

Prigozhin, once a close ally of Putin, said the march started because of an alleged attack on his forces that he blames on the Russian military.

“We started our march because of an injustice,” Prigozhin, once a close ally of Putin, said, referring to an alleged attack on his forces that he blames on the Russian military.

“We went to demonstrate our protest and not to overthrow power in the country,” Prigozhin added, repeatedly denying that he and his forces planned to seize power.

He said the goal of what he referred to as “our march of justice” was to prevent the “liquidation of the Wagner private military campaign and to demonstrate how indeed the special military operation should have been conducted.”

But then he added that as a “result of intrigue and wrong decisions,” Wagner plans to cease existing on July 1 after its commanders spoke to the fighters “and nobody agreed to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry.”

Prigozhin also noted in his lengthy commentary that his troops “did not kill a single Russian soldier on land” but shot down several Defense Ministry aircraft after the aircraft “bombed us and attacked us with missiles.”

Kirby could not confirm whether Prigozhin was in Belarus and said it is too soon to know what will become of the Wagner group.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that while Washington does not know what will happen to Wagner in Ukraine, the events over the weekend reinforce Washington’s concerns about the instability Wagner brings when its forces join conflicts.

Wagner has fought in Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali, and Syria since being founded in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and started supporting pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

The United States renews the message that it has given these countries publicly and privately in the past, “which is that any time Wagner enters the country, death and destruction follow,” Miller told reporters. “You see Wagner exploit local populations, we see them extract local wealth, we see them commit human rights abuses.”

Russian authorities earlier on June 26 scrambled to present a return to normality by reversing counterterrorism measures in the capital and some regions after Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced the cancellation of counterterrorism measures imposed in the Russian capital during the attempted mutiny.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) separately announced the lifting of all temporary restrictions in Moscow region, while Voronezh regional Governor Aleksandr Gusev also said the counterterrorism regime had been rescinded in his region following the withdrawal of Prigozhin’s fighters.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whose dismissal was one of the main demands by Prigozhin, was seen in a video visiting troops.

Russia’s Defense Ministry on June 26 published a soundless video purporting to show Shoigu flying in a plane with a colleague and hearing reports at a command post. It was not immediately clear where or when the footage had been recorded.

Earlier, the RIA Novosti news agency said Shoigu had visited Russian troops involved in the military operation in Ukraine. The information could not be independently confirmed.

As part of the deal brokered by Lukashenka and reported by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, criminal charges against the mutineers were to be dropped in exchange for their return to camps, while Prigozhin would move to Belarus.

But the Russian newspaper Kommersant and the TASS news agency, citing unidentified sources, reported on June 26 that Prigozhin remains under investigation by the FSB on suspicion of organizing an armed mutiny.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said during a visit to Lithuania on June 26 that Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny shows that Moscow committed a strategic mistake by waging war on Ukraine.

“The events over the weekend are an internal Russian matter, and yet another demonstration of the big strategic mistake that President [Vladimir] Putin made with his illegal annexation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine,” he told reporters in Vilnius. “As Russia continues its assault, it is even more important to continue our support to Ukraine.”

European Union ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, said the failed revolt raised questions about Putin’s grip on power.

“We are analyzing this carefully,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters. “There are also risks involved, which we are still unable to assess at the moment. For us Europeans, the only thing that matters is to support Ukraine.”

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting, said that the political system “is showing fragilities, and the military power is cracking” and now is the moment to support Ukraine more than ever.

Addressing the ministers by video link, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged the ministers to take advantage of the latest developments.

“Russia is getting weaker every day. It is critically important now to provide Ukraine with all the weapons it needs,” he said, including artillery and missiles, but also tougher sanctions.

Meanwhile, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said early on June 26 that Ukrainian forces have retaken 130 square kilometers in the south since the start of Kyiv’s long-anticipated counteroffensive.

Malyar said on her Telegram channel that the Ukrainian military continued to make advances in the Melitopol and Berdyansk areas of the southern Zaporizhzhya region, despite fierce Russian resistance and “significant” human and material losses.

“In total, since the beginning of our [counter]offensive, the area liberated in the south amounts to 130 square kilometers,” she said.

Separately, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in its daily report early on June 26 that Ukrainian forces successfully repelled intensified Russian attempts to advance in the eastern region of Donetsk, fighting off 36 assaults in the Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Maryinka areas over the past day.

The General Staff also reported that Ukrainian troops are continuing their operations in Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions, without giving more details.