Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made his first public appearance since a mercenary uprising demanded his ouster, inspecting troops in Ukraine in a video released Monday aimed at projecting a sense of order after the country’s most serious political crisis in decades.
But uncertainty still swirled about his fate, that of rebellion leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and his private army, the impact on the war in Ukraine, and even the political future of President Vladimir Putin.
A feud between Wagner Group leader Prigozhin and Russia’s military brass that has festered throughout the war erupted into a mutiny that saw the mercenaries leave Ukraine to seize a military headquarters in a southern Russian city and roll seemingly unopposed for hundreds of miles toward Moscow, before turning around after less than 24 hours on Saturday.
The Kremlin said it had made a deal that Prigozhin will move to Belarus and receive an amnesty, along with his soldiers. There was no confirmation of his whereabouts Monday, although a popular Russian news channel on Telegram reported he was seen at a hotel in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
Russian media reported a criminal probe against Prigozhin continued, and some lawmakers called for his head.
In a return to at least superficial normality, Moscow’s mayor announced an end to the “counterterrorism regime” imposed on the capital Saturday, when troops and armored vehicles set up checkpoints on the outskirts and authorities tore up roads leading into the city.
The Defense Ministry video of Shoigu came as Russian media speculated that he and other military leaders have lost Putin’s confidence and could be replaced.
Shoigu was shown in a helicopter and then meeting with officers at a military headquarters in Ukraine. The video was widely broadcast on Russian media, including state-controlled television. It was unclear when it was shot.
General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, also a main target of Prigozhin’s ire, has not appeared in public.
It was unclear what would ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces under the deal purportedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Though the mutiny was brief, it was not bloodless. Russian media reported that several military helicopters and a military communications plane were shot down by Wagner forces, killing at least 15. The Defense Ministry has not commented. Prigozhin denied there were any casualties on his side, but media reports indicated the airstrikes hit some Wagner vehicles, and messaging app channels featured images of the damage.
The U.S. had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time, suggesting the revolt was planned. That conflicts with Prigozhin’s claim his rebellion was a response to an attack on his field camps in Ukraine on Friday by the Russian military, which he said killed a large number of his men. The Defense Ministry denied it.
Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency cited unidentified sources in the Prosecutor General’s office as saying the criminal case against Prigozhin hasn’t been closed, despite earlier Kremlin statements. The Interfax news agency carried a similar report.
Should the case continue, Prigozhin’s presence in Belarus — a staunch Kremlin ally — would offer little protection against arrest and extradition.
It was unclear what resources Prigozhin has to draw on, and how much of his substantial wealth he can access. Police searching his St. Petersburg office on the day of the rebellion found 4 billion rubles ($48 million) in trucks outside the building, according to Russian media reports confirmed by the Wagner boss. He claimed the money was intended to pay his soldiers’ families.
Several Russian lawmakers called for tight regulations of private military companies under a new law set to be considered — and some argued that Prigozhin must be punished.
Andrei Gurulev, a retired general and current lawmaker who has rowed with the mercenary leader, said Prigozhin and his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin, a former military officer who runs Wagner, deserve “a bullet in the head.”
“I firmly believe that traitors in wartime must be executed,” he said.
Prigozhin appeared nonchalant in some of the last video taken during the rebellion. As a convoy carrying him in an SUV drove out of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don after its brief occupation Saturday, he was asked how he viewed the result of his revolt, according to footage posted on Russian social media.
“It’s normal, we have cheered everyone up,” the mercenary chief responded.
Before the uprising, Prigozhin had blasted Shoigu and Gerasimov with expletive-ridden insults for months, attacking them for failing to provide his troops with enough ammunition during the fight for the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.
Prigozhin’s rift with the military dates back for years, to Russia’s intervention in Syria, where Wagner forces also were active.
Putin stood back from the feud and Shoigu and Gerasimov remained mum, possibly reflecting uncertainty about the president’s support. Observers said that by failing to end the feud, Putin had encouraged Prigozhin to raise the stakes dramatically.
Some analysts saw Prigozhin’s revolt as a desperate move to save Wagner from being dismantled after an order that all private military companies sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1.
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said on Twitter that Prigozhin’s mutiny “wasn’t a bid for power or an attempt to overtake the Kremlin,” but a desperate move amid his escalating rift with Russia’s military leadership.
While Prigozhin could get out of crisis alive, he doesn’t have a political future in Russia under Putin, Stanovaya said.
Alex Younger, former head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency, said it appeared that “neither side was in control” during the rebellion.
He told the BBC that Prigozhin “didn’t have a plan, he didn’t have enough people” to succeed, while Putin looked indecisive, first vowing to crush the rebels, then striking a deal.
“Everyone comes out of this weaker,” Younger said.
Russian media and commentators speculated that Shoigu could be replaced, but that Putin, who avoids making decisions under pressure, would likely wait before announcing a shakeup.
Putin held calls Monday with the leaders of Iran and Qatar, the Kremlin said, and addressed a forum of youth engineers in a pre-recorded video message that contained no mention of the mutiny.
It was not yet clear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for the war in Ukraine, where Western officials say Russia’s troops suffer low morale. Wagner’s forces were key to Russia’s only land victory in months, in Bakhmut.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense said Monday that Ukraine had “gained impetus” in its push around Bakhmut, making progress north and south of the town.
U.S. President Joe Biden and leaders of several of Ukraine’s European allies discussed events in Russia over the weekend, but Western officials have been muted in their public comments.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told broadcaster RT that U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy contacted Russian representatives Saturday to stress that the U.S. was not involved in the mutiny and considered it an internal Russian matter. There was no immediate confirmation from the U.S., although Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that U.S. officials had “engaged” with Russia to stress the importance of protecting U.S. citizens and interests.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday that “the events over the weekend are an internal Russian matter.” Max Blain, spokesman for U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, said “issues of regime in Russia are for Russia to resolve, first and foremost.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, speaking to reporters before a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, said the revolt showed that the war is “cracking Russia’s political system.”
“The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now,” Borrell said. “The monster is acting against his creator.”