September 19, 2023

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has made his first public appearance since a mercenary uprising demanded his ouster

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 march seemingly unopposed on 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. Yet on Monday, Russian media reported a criminal probe against him continued, and his whereabouts were unknown.

In a return to at least superficial normality, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin 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 — the first shown since the uprising that demanded his ouster — 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. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Saturday that Putin has given his word that Prigozhin will be allowed to go to Belarus.

The 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.

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 the Russian military 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.

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.

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

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 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.

“Prigozhin was forced out of Ukraine and found himself unable to sustain Wagner the way he did before, while the state machinery was turning against him,” she wrote in a commentary on Twitter.

While Prigozhin could get out of crisis alive, he doesn’t have a political future in Russia under Putin, Stanovaya said.

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.

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.

“There has been little evidence that Russia maintains any significant ground forces operational level reserves which could be used to reinforce against the multiple threats it is now facing in widely separated sectors,” it said in a daily assessment of the war.

Andrei Kartapolov, the head of the defense affairs committee in the lower house of Russia’s parliament, said lawmakers were set to consider a bill that would regulate the activities of private military companies.

In remarks published Sunday, Kartapolov said it makes sense to continue use Wagner troops, calling the company “the most capable unit in Russia.”

He noted that it’s unclear whether Wagner would remain as a single company or what it would be called, saying some troops could be offered contracts with the Defense Ministry.

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.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg “the events over the weekend are an internal Russian matter.”

Speaking in Vilnius, Lithuania, he said the crisis was “yet another demonstration of the big strategic mistake that President Putin made with his illegal annexation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine.”

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.”

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