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Vladimir Putin says Wagner mutiny leaders will be ‘brought to justice’

・JAMES GREGORY and SARAH RAINSFORD, EASTERN EUROPE CORRESPONDENT

Russian president Vladimir Putin has accused the leaders of last weekend’s Wagner mutiny of wanting “to see Russia choked in bloody strife”.

In a short speech full of vitriol, Putin vowed to bring the organisers of the revolt “to justice”.

But he called regular Wagner troops “patriots”, who would be allowed to join the army, go to Belarus or return home.

He did not directly name Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who earlier denied trying to overthrow Putin’s regime.

Wagner is a private army of mercenaries that has been fighting alongside the regular Russian army in Ukraine.

The short-lived rebellion, which saw Wagner fighters seize a major Russian city before heading north towards Moscow in a column of military vehicles, was a response to government plans to take direct control of Wagner, Prigozhin claimed in an 11-minute-long audio statement published on Telegram on Monday.

In June, Russia said “volunteer formations” would be asked to sign ministry of defence contracts in a move widely seen as a threat to Prigozhin’s grip on Wagner.

The mercenary chief said his rebellion was also a protest over mistakes made by defence officials during the war with Ukraine.

But he insisted that Wagner had acted always and only in Russia’s interests.

These were Prigozhin’s first public comments since agreeing a deal to halt the rebellion, which reportedly includes him going to Belarus with all criminal charges against him dropped – though Russian state media, citing officials, has reported he remains under investigation.

He said he brought an end to the mutiny to stop “spilling the blood of Russian soldiers”, adding that some Russian civilians were disappointed the march had stopped.

But he was at pains to stress that he had no intention of trying to topple Russia’s elected authorities.

It was only audio, so it is not clear where Prigozhin is now or what he will do next.

In his own brief address to the Russian people, Putin said organisers of the march on Moscow would be “brought to justice” and described his old ally Prigozhin as stabbing Russia in the back.

He used the speech as an attempt to reassert his authority, and squash the now-common view that his response to the Wagner mutiny was weak. His tone in the short, recorded address was furious, his lip curling.

The president’s message was that those who organised an insurrection had betrayed their country and people, and were doing the work of all of Russia’s enemies by trying to drag it into bloodshed and division.

He accused the West of wanting Russians to “kill each other”, but United States (US) president Joe Biden told a press conference on Monday the US and its allies had no involvement in Wagner’s aborted rebellion.

Putin argued that his own management of the crisis had averted disaster. But that’s not what many Russians saw play out over the weekend, and it’s hard to think they’ll be convinced by this performance.

He also said he would keep his promise to allow Wagner troops who did not “turn to fratricidal blood” to leave for Belarus.

“I thank those soldiers and commanders of the Wagner Group who made the only right decision – they did not turn to fratricidal bloodshed, they stopped at the last line,” he said.

“Today, you have the opportunity to continue your service for Russia by signing a contract with the [ministry of defence] or other military and law-enforcement structures, or to go back to your family and close ones.

“Those who want can leave for Belarus. The promise I gave will be fulfilled.”

Putin said “steps were taken to avoid a lot of bloodshed” at the very beginning of the mutiny, and that its organisers “realised their actions were criminal”.

He praised the unity of Russian society and thanked Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who is said to have brokered the deal to end the mutiny, for his efforts to resolve the situation peacefully.

The president’s talk of a country united behind him contrasts sharply with Saturday’s images from the southern city of Rostov, where the Wagner group had taken control and locals applauded fighters in the streets, hugging them and posing for selfies.

That’s probably why Putin offered Wagner members a way out, suggesting they’d been duped and used. Last week’s rebellion followed months of growing tensions between Wagner and Russia’s military leadership.

Infighting came to a head on Friday night when Wagner mercenaries crossed the border from their field camps in Ukraine and entered the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, where Russia’s war is being directed from.

They then reportedly took over the regional military command while a column of military vehicles moved north towards Moscow.

Prigozhin claimed his “march of justice” revealed “serious problems with security all around the country”.

He also mentioned the role Lukashenko had played in brokering the arrangement to end the mutiny, saying the leader had offered Wagner a way to keep operating in a “legal jurisdiction”.

The mercenary boss acknowledged his march had resulted in the deaths of some Russian troops when Wagner troops shot down attacking helicopters.

But he added that “not a single soldier was killed on the ground”.

“We are sorry that we had to strike the aircraft, but they were striking us with bombs and missiles,” he said.

– BBC News