Russian President Vladimir Putin paid tribute on Tuesday to his army, which he said had prevented a “civil war” during last weekend’s short-lived rebellion by the mercenary Wagner Group. The fighters have been pardoned but the group has been ordered to hand over its heavy weapons.
While the shockwaves of the revolt led by the men of billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin have yet to be measured, the Kremlin has already denied that Vladimir Putin has been weakened by this crisis, the worst in more than two decades of his reign.
“You have protected the Constitutional order, the life, security and freedom of our citizens. You have protected our Motherland”, Mr Putin said at a ceremony in front of the military in Moscow. “In fact, you prevented a civil war,” he added.
With a solemn expression on his face and his head bowed, the master of the Kremlin then observed a minute’s silence in tribute to the army pilots killed by Wagner Group forces while “performing their duty with honour”.
Prigozhin in Belarus?
Observers of the flight tracker Flightradar24 said they had tracked a plane believed to be carrying Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin en route from Rostov-on-Don to the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
In a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to avoid potential bloodshed, Prigozhin was allowed to flee to Belarus along with Wagner mercenaries.
Mr Lukashenko said on Tuesday that the rebellion was the result of a breakdown in relations between Wagner and the Russian army.
“The situation got away from us, then we thought it would be resolved, but it hasn’t been resolved,” Lukashenko told journalists. “There are no heroes in this story”, he lamented.
Putin’s reign underfire
The aborted rebellion by the Wagner group has been the biggest challenge faced by Putin since taking office more than two decades ago. Faced with critics who believe he has been greatly weakened by this crisis, the Kremlin took a stand on Tuesday.
“We don’t agree,” replied Russian presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov. “These events have shown the extent to which society is consolidating around the president.”
Prigozhin’s long-term fate remains unclear. Russian authorities have announced they are dropping mutiny charges against him and other Wagner members.