‘We didn’t want to overthrow govt,’ says mercenary leader Prigozhin in first comments since Russian mutiny

Published June 26, 2023
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group’s pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24. — Reuters
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group’s pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24. — Reuters
This screengrab made from an undated video footage released by the Russian Defence Ministry on June 26, 2023 show Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (C) and officers looking at a map in an undisclosed location. — AFP
This screengrab made from an undated video footage released by the Russian Defence Ministry on June 26, 2023 show Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (C) and officers looking at a map in an undisclosed location. — AFP

Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Monday that a one-day mutiny by his Wagner force had been intended not to overthrow Russia’s government but to register a protest over what he said was its ineffectual conduct of the war in Ukraine.

In his first public comments since ending the mutiny late on Saturday, Prigozhin repeated his frequent claim that Wagner was the most effective fighting force in Russia “and even the world”, and that it put to shame the units that Moscow had sent into Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

He said the way it had been able to seize the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don without bloodshed and to send an armed convoy to within 200 kilometres of Moscow had been a testament to the effectiveness of his fighters.

“We showed a master class, as it should have been on Feb 24, 2022. We did not have the goal of overthrowing the existing regime and the legally elected government,” he said in an 11-minute audio message released on the Telegram messaging app.

Prigozhin renewed an allegation, so far unsupported by evidence, that the Russian military had attacked a Wagner camp with missiles and then helicopters, killing about 30 of its men, and said this had been the immediate trigger for what he called a “march of justice”.

Averting bloodshed

Wagner stopped its advance towards Moscow at the moment when it realised that it would have to confront waiting Russian troops, and that blood would inevitably be shed, he said, reiterating an assertion he made on Saturday.

Prigozhin, a former close ally of President Vladimir Putin, stressed that Wagner had not spilt a drop of blood on the ground during its northward march, but regretted that his fighters had had to kill Russian servicemen who attacked their convoy from helicopters.

He also once more complained about a military order that all volunteer units, including Wagner, are meant to sign by July 1 placing themselves under the control of Russia’s Defence Ministry.

Fewer than two per cent of Wagner’s men have signed up, Prigozhin added.

“The aim of the march was to avoid the destruction of Wagner,” he said.

In the recording, Prigozhin did not address any of the questions still surrounding the agreement brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that brought the mutiny to an end.

The Kremlin said on Saturday that the deal had included dropping a criminal case against Prigozhin and his moving to Belarus.

Prigozhin, who was last seen in public being driven in a sport utility vehicle out of Rostov-on-Don on Saturday evening, did not say where he was when he recorded his statement.

Defence minister appears for first time since mutiny

Earlier today, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu appeared for the first time since the deal was struck to end what the authorities had called an armed mutiny aimed at ousting him.

In a video released on Monday morning by the Russian Defence Ministry, Shoigu was shown flying in a plane with a colleague and hearing reports at a command post run by Russia’s Zapad (West) military grouping.

There was no sound on the video and it was not immediately clear where or when the visit had taken place.

Russia’s Zvezda Defence Ministry TV Channel said Shoigu, who looked physically unharmed and calm, had listened to a report by Colonel General Yevgeny Nikiforov, the group’s commander, about the current situation on the frontlines in Ukraine.

In his mutiny, Prigozhin had demanded that Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, be handed over to him so that he could “restore justice”.

Prigozhin accused both men of gross incompetence and corruption and had long been agitating for their removal.

Gerasimov has not been seen since in public, and there was no word from the Kremlin about any new personnel changes when it described the deal which had ended the mutiny.

The Kremlin said the question of personnel changes was the sole prerogative of Russian President Vladimir Putin and could hardly have been part of any deal.

Zvezda said Shoigu on his visit had heard about the formation of new reserve forces for the “Zapad” military grouping and had noted what it called the Russian army’s “high efficiency” at “detecting and destroying enemy military equipment and accumulations of personnel in tactical areas”.

He had tasked them with continuing active reconnaissance in order to reveal the enemy’s plans to thwart Ukrainian forces’ movements far behind the frontlines, it said.

Zvezda said Shoigu had also paid particular attention to what it called “the organisation of all-round support for the troops involved in the Special Military Operation and the creation of conditions for the safe housing of personnel.”

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