In his first comments since ending a short-lived rebellion, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, said he called it off to prevent Russian bloodshed and that the rising was a protest rather than attempt to topple the government.
“The purpose of the march was to prevent the destruction of PMC Wagner and to bring to justice those who, through their unprofessional actions, made a huge number of mistakes during the special military operation,” Prigozhin said in an audio message, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Saturday troops from his private military group seized control of a military base and moved in convoy towards Russia’s capital on Saturday, a remarkable and unexpected challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The march was suddenly called off when a supposed deal was struck that would see Prigozhin move to Belarus.
The move towards Moscow marked a drastic escalation in Prigozhin’s long-running feud with Russia’s Defense Ministry, whom he claimed Monday had planned for Wagner to “cease to exist” from July 1.
“Overnight, we have walked 780 kilometers (480 miles), 200-something kilometers (125 miles) were left to Moscow,” Prigozhin claimed in his Monday message, despite no evidence of his Wagner forces made it that close to the Russian capital.
“Not a single soldier on the ground was killed,” Prigozhin added. “We regret that we were forced to strikes on aircraft,” he said. “…but these aircraft dropped bombs and launched missile strikes.”
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko “extended his hand” and offered to find solutions to further the work of the Wagner Group in a legal way, Prigozhin said, mirroring the line that Minsk and the Kremlin has communicated about why the march – which for several hours appeared to be an armed insurrection on the Russian state – suddenly ended.
The future role of Prigozhin or his Wagner group remains unclear. The unit has been increasingly essential to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, but whether it will continue to exist in any meaningful capacity is uncertain.
“We stopped at the moment when the detachment, which had approached Moscow, deployed its artillery, made a reconnaissance of the area, and it was obvious that at that moment a lot of blood would be shed. We felt that demonstrating what we were going to do was sufficient,” Prigozhin said Monday.
Russian President Putin has not spoken about the events since a televised address on Saturday, in which he threatened severe punishments against those conducting what he called an “armed rebellion.”
A pre-recorded video of Putin addressing the “International Youth Industrial Forum” from behind a nondescript desk flanked by Russian flags was released by the Kremlin on Monday, but there was no information about when or where the clip was filmed. In the short video, Putin makes no mention of the events of the past weekend, focusing instead on the forum.
Prigozhin had previously accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov, of not giving his forces ammunition and was critical of their handling of the conflict, but he always defended the reasoning for the military campaign and steered clear of criticizing Putin himself.
But he crossed these red lines over the weekend. Late on Friday, Prigozhin accused Russia’s military leadership of killing his fighters during a strike on a Wagner camp, which the Russian Defense Ministry has denied.
What followed was a remarkable 24-hour confrontation that seemingly weakened Putin’s reputation and sowed further discord and infighting in Russia’s military ranks.