Days after an aborted rebellion in Russia by a mercenary group presented a dramatic challenge to his leadership, President Vladimir V. Putin made highly choreographed public appearances in an effort to project power and control, even as U.S. officials said early intelligence reports suggested that a top general had been detained in connection with the failed uprising.
In Moscow, Mr. Putin attended a technology fair on Thursday, sitting in a gaming chair and joking with other panelists onstage. The day before, he strode through a crowd of well-wishers in southern Russia, shaking hands, kissing a girl on the head and posing for selfies. It was a display that Russians had not glimpsed from their leader in years.
“My God, this is Vladimir Putin!” people shouted as the Russian president, flanked by bodyguards, mingled in a throng of people in the southern city of Derbent on Wednesday, casting aside the strict social-distancing protocols he had observed since the pandemic began, including sitting at a very long table, far away from visitors.
But amid the Kremlin’s efforts to emphasize popular support for Mr. Putin and the message that Russia was back to business as usual, U.S. officials said that the Russian authorities appeared to have detained a general, Sergei Surovikin, the former commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, who American officials say had known in advance about the rebellion by the Wagner mercenary group.
The general has not been seen publicly since early Saturday. American officials would not say — or do not know — if he had been formally arrested or was being held for questioning.
Asked about General Surovikin on Thursday, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, referred questions to Russia’s Defense Ministry.
A senior NATO-country diplomat said that firm intelligence was lacking, but that careful comments by Mr. Peskov seemed to confirm the general’s detention. News of General Surovikin’s detention was reported earlier by The Financial Times.
Since the short-lived rebellion by Wagner’s chief, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, ended on Saturday, Russian diplomats have scrambled to reassure allies, including leaders in the Central African Republic, where Wagner has deployed thousands of soldiers for hire, that little would change for them.
“Russia gave us Wagner; the rest isn’t our business,” said Fidèle Gouandjika, a special adviser to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic. Details about Russia’s diplomatic efforts were initially reported by The Wall Street Journal.
As Moscow tried to shore up alliances abroad, the war continued to rage in Ukraine. Russian shelling killed two people and wounded two others in the southern Kherson region, according to the local military administration. It said in a statement that the strike had hit “a place where civilians came to receive humanitarian aid.” The region has been under a monthslong bombardment by Russian forces.
Rescue efforts also ended in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, where a 12th body was pulled from the rubble of a restaurant hit by a Russian missile strike on Tuesday.
Hanna Malyar, a Ukrainian deputy minister of defense, said on Thursday that while the country’s troops were making progress in the counteroffensive to recapture Russian-held territory in the south and east, the battles were “tough.” Kyiv’s forces heading south have advanced toward Berdiansk and Melitopol, two key Russian-occupied cities in the Zaporizhzhia region, she said, citing gains of about 1,400 yards in the direction of Berdiansk.
She also said that Ukrainian troops had gained about 1,300 yards in the direction of Klishchiivka, a village in the eastern region of Donetsk that was captured by Moscow’s troops in January. Her claims could not be independently verified.
Mr. Putin’s brief but heavily publicized encounters with the Russian public this week were a stark departure from the protocols he had put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.
For years, layers of protective measures had limited access to president. To see him in person, visitors had to quarantine for up to two weeks and submit negative P.C.R. test results. Ministers and foreign leaders had to sit across a long table from Mr. Putin, adding to the sense that he was isolated, well before his decision to invade Ukraine in February last year.
In the immediate aftermath of the Wagner rebellion, a visibly angry Mr. Putin gave televised speeches to the nation, railing against those he described as traitors and vowing punishment. Since then, the Kremlin has announced that the charges against the mutineers would be dropped, and that Mr. Prigozhin would decamp to Belarus.
President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus said he had offered the Wagner fighters an “abandoned” military base to use. Satellite imagery shows the rapid construction of what appear to be temporary structures at a deserted military base in Belarus that could be a location for the fighters. Belarusian state news media also said that Mr. Prigozhin arrived in the country on Tuesday, but there has been no independent confirmation of his whereabouts.
A seemingly sanguine Mr. Putin then appeared at the technology fair in Moscow, where he was shown new facial recognition technology and advanced printers, and he joked about a Russian cartoon character, Garbage Toad. The outing occurred a day after he was seen in the southern region of Dagestan, sipping local brandy and speaking about growing regional tourism.
In his encounters with the public in recent years, Mr. Putin rarely got as close as he did with the crowd on Wednesday. Last year, he disembarked from his limousine to wave from afar to those gathered in Kaliningrad. In March, he visited the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol, a city razed by his forces, and state news media görüntü footage showed him speaking with a few residents.
Russian state television claimed in its flagship political talk show on Thursday that Mr. Putin had been met like a “rock star” in Derbent, defying the Western image of a leader weakened by the Wagner revolt.
The Kremlin played up the encounter in Derbent, seeking to portray it as a spontaneous move by a president who could not resist the outpouring of support.
“On the one hand, there is a strong recommendation from specialists,” Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, told reporters in a regular news briefing on Thursday, apparently referring to medical advice to Mr. Putin to maintain social distance. “On the other, there is a firm decision from the president who could not refuse these people.”
Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said that Mr. Putin has been trying to return “to a zone of comfort” after the Wagner uprising.
The message, she said, is that “he is not hiding in a bunker, that he is here with his people.”
Reporting was contributed by Cassandra Vinograd, Alina Lobzina, Stanislav Kozliuk and Monika Pronczuk.
The New York Times