The Kremlin on Tuesday went into overdrive to try to project unity and reassert Putin’s strength while also moving to taint Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the former Putin ally who led the rebellion. But the official explanations for why Prigozhin was allowed to escape without punishment looked unusually thin, highlighting new doubts about Putin’s strength and competence in a crisis.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed Tuesday that Prigozhin had arrived in Belarus, the key condition in his deal with the Kremlin to drop insurgency charges against him and allow Wagner to relocate its operations. Lukashenko said that the mercenary group would be offered an abandoned military base for its use.
In a bombshell revelation during a meeting with military service members at the Kremlin, Putin, who for years denied any state link to Wagner, admitted for the first time that the mercenaries were fully state-financed. He added that Russia paid the Wagner Group more than $1 billion from May 2022 to May 2023, while Prigozhin’s Concord company was paid almost $1 billion to supply food to the military.
“I hope that no one stole anything or stole not much, but we will deal with all this,” he said, referring to Wagner’s leadership without uttering Prigozhin’s name, which he has avoided saying since the start of the crisis Friday.
The admission that Russian authorities spent so much money on a “private” mercenary group could backfire on Putin, as a telling example of the cost of the Ukraine war, which the Kremlin generally has sought to obscure from the public. The disclosure could be especially damaging after Prigozhin’s repeated accusations that Russian military leaders are minimizing the death toll in Ukraine, which he claims has run as high as 1,000 soldiers a day either killed, seriously wounded or deserting.
Russia’s Defense Ministry on Tuesday also announced that steps were being taken for Wagner to hand over heavy weapons that the government has provided the mercenaries to wage war in Ukraine.
Belarusian dictator Lukashenko’s unlikely cameo as mediator with Wagner
Earlier Tuesday, Putin met with a group of military and security officers, whom he praised for preventing a civil war, after a late-night meeting Monday with leaders of all the major security agencies.
“You have protected the constitutional system, life, security and freedom of our citizens, protected our fatherland from shocks and practically stopped a civil war,” Putin told officers of the Defense Ministry, the National Guard, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Interior Ministry and the Federal Protection Service assembled on Cathedral Square at the Kremlin.
“People who were drawn into the rebellion saw that the army and the people were not with them,” he said.
In a sign of the Kremlin’s scramble to close ranks, Putin was to hold a closed-door meeting with Russian editors and other media leaders later in the day, probably in a bid to curb questions and impose the official line.
Political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said Putin’s comments Tuesday to military officials reminded him of Joseph Stalin’s famous 1945 victory banquet toast to the Russian people, “who stood up to defend their government, even though they might not have stood up.”
Kolesnikov predicted that Putin’s likely response to the internal divisions would be a new crackdown.
“It is likely that Putin’s suspicion of internal enemies and repression of dissenters will intensify — although they have consistently intensified without reason,” Kolesnikov said in an interview. “And his desire to continue the war will not cool down. The elite, despite the understanding that the system is weaker and alternative forces are possible, will consolidate around Putin, scared of him and his suspicion.”
Putin’s professions of unity were contradicted by images of Prigozhin being cheered and passersby seeking to take selfies with him as he left the southern city of Rostov-on-Don on Saturday after calling off the rebellion and agreeing to leave for Belarus.
Criticism swirled Tuesday about how Wagner’s forces had seized a major military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, and then advanced to within 125 miles of Moscow with no effective military response, even as Putin insisted that the “quick and precise deployment of law enforcement agencies” had stopped “the extremely dangerous development of the situation in the country.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was present at Putin’s meeting with military officers, in a clear sign that the president is unlikely to remove him, despite intense resentment over Shoigu’s handling of the war among hard line nationalists and some Russian military officers. Prigozhin, a ferocious critic of Shoigu, tried to leverage those divisions in his unsuccessful mutiny.
The deal between Putin and Prigozhin, calling for insurgency charges against the mercenary chief to be dropped, appeared to be holding on Tuesday. The Kremlin said it was brokered by Lukashenko, who gave a speech Tuesday claiming credit for his role and saying Belarus had planned for decades to avoid any upheaval.
In Moscow, the FSB announced that charges against Prigozhin’s Wagner Group had been dropped because “it was established that its participants stopped their actions aimed at committing a rebellion,” the Tass state-owned news agency reported.
Putin and the Defense Ministry have acknowledged that several Russian military pilots were killed in the rebellion when Wagner fighters shot down their helicopters and at least one plane.
Prigozhin’s rebellion raises questions about Wagner’s African footprint
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the idea that the rebellion shook Russian authorities or Putin, instead insisting that it “demonstrated a high level of consolidation of society, political forces and the military around the president,” even as Russian analysts said the opposite was true.
Peskov tried to explain the contradiction of dropping treason charges while some Russian activists are in prison simply for social media posts critical of the war. Peskov said the deal was a necessity born out of “a rather sad event, an extraordinary event.”
“There was some agreement reached to avoid the worst-case scenario,” Peskov said. “And there were certain promises made by the president, certain guarantees given by the president. The agreements are being implemented.”
But Moscow-based Russia analyst Boris Kagalitsky, a former Soviet dissident and critic of the Putin regime, said Kremlin claims that unity saved Russia were “just nonsense,” adding that many citizens observed the mutiny unfold without backing one side or another.
“There was so little support for the regime that it was really striking. The military didn’t move. The police didn’t move. People were just watching. Nobody rushed to the government offices to show support,” he said.
“However, there were at least some pockets of support for Prigozhin, not so much because of his politics, if there are any politics at all, but mainly because at least somebody did something against the government system. So quite a lot of people were quite happy to see that happening.”
But it was Lukashenko who summed up the failures as the crisis unfolded during his remarks at a military ceremony Tuesday.
“We let the situation go on and then we thought that it would resolve, but it did not resolve,” he said, referring to the Wagner rebellion, saying no one should make heroes out of him, Putin or Prigozhin.
“Two people who fought at the front collided,” he said. “There are no heroes in this case.” He reportedly put Belarusian forces on combat readiness during the crisis.
Lukashenko insisted that a tragedy had been averted. If Russia were to collapse, he said, “we would all die.”
In other comments on Tuesday, Lukashenko told Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin that the crisis “strained us very seriously.” But he dismissed tensions in Belarus about the planned move of thousands of Wagner fighters to the country, saying “there is nothing to be afraid of with them.”
Rebellion shakes Russian elite’s faith in Putin’s strength
Meanwhile Russians were left grappling with the confusion and whiplash of the fast-moving mutiny and Russia’s slow response.
One 80-year-old Moscow pensioner, who broke off friendships because of her support for the war, said the Wagner rebellion changed her mind, after Prigozhin’s comments Friday debunking Putin’s central premise for starting the war — that Russia faced an extraordinary security threat. Prigozhin said that was a lie cooked up by greedy generals and Russian officials eager to capture and plunder Ukraine.
“I changed my views after what happened with Wagner; I want this war to be over as soon as possible,” the pensioner said. “It is a war in the Ministry of Defense and not at the front lines and Prigozhin is right: Ukraine was not going to start the war against Russia. This all happened because of greedy Russian generals.” The pensioner spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions.
Russians have passively accepted the war, Kolesnikov argued, on the understanding that the authorities will not involve the broader population in fighting, as Putin did when he announced a partial Russian mobilization last September, sending shock waves through society. Thousands of ill-trained, poorly equipped draftees were killed, some within days of reaching Ukraine.
“But it is important to Putin that people perceive war as something inevitable. But the kind of inevitability must not invade every home. That is why the authorities emphasize the fact that so far there is enough manpower, which is replenished by contract servicemen and volunteers. In response, passive conformists pretend not to notice the gravest human losses.”
In a Moscow hair salon, a beautician told a client that she was fed up, yet could not stop scrolling through Telegram channels for the latest dramatic news update.
“I even forgot to eat, reading Telegram channels,” the beautician said. “What happened? Do you understand it? How sick and tired I am of all this stuff.” Her client complained about the cost to taxpayers of the damage.
“It’s such a mess,” the client said. “And of course, we are paying, with our taxes. They play their games and we are paying. It’s beyond all limits. This is their conflict. Why should ordinary people suffer?”
Kagalitsky said there was no doubt the crisis shook Putin’s reputation in the nation as Russia’s pillar of stability and security, but he said in Russia’s system, this was not crucial.
“The big question is, does it mean anything? Okay, this guy doesn’t have the reputation he used to have. So what? It’s Russia. It’s not the kind of country where reputation matters.”
At least one winner of the chaotic mutiny episode appeared to be Viktor Zolotov, commander of the Russian National Guard, who announced that Putin had agreed to allocate tanks and heavy weapons to his forces.