Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a working meeting with the participation of heads of Russian law enforcement agencies at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 26 June 2023. EFE/EPA/VALERIY SHARIFULIN / SPUTNIK /KREMLIN / POOL MANDATORY CREDIT

After rebellion, Putin says Wagner Group fighters can join Russian army or go to Belarus

Moscow, June 26 (EFE).- Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wagner Group mercenaries who took part in a short-lived rebellion over the weekend but did not shed blood have the option of either joining the Russian military before a July 1 deadline or moving to Belarus.

Members of a family in Moscow, Russia, watch President Vladimir Putin's televised address to the nation on 26 June 2023. EFE/EPA/SERGEI ILNITSKY
Members of a family in Moscow, Russia, watch President Vladimir Putin’s televised address to the nation on 26 June 2023. EFE/EPA/SERGEI ILNITSKY

“Today, they have the opportunity to continue serving Russia by signing a contract with the Defense Ministry (or to) return to their family and friends. Or those (fighters) that wish to do so may go to Belarus,” whose government is a close ally of Moscow, the Russian leader said in a late Monday televised address to the nation.

Putin said he will “keep his promise” not to criminally prosecute mercenaries who revolted, an apparent reference to an agreement reached Saturday with Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and brokered by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko.

That accord came after the Wagner Group’s leader ordered his troops to halt their march to the Russian capital and return to their bases in Ukraine.

Under the terms of the deal, Prigozhin was given assurances that he would not face charges for organizing the armed rebellion, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. He also agreed to go into exile in Belarus.

Putin, who had remained silent since a speech to the nation on Saturday morning, when he slammed as traitors and vowed to punish all those who took part in the revolt, on Monday said rebellious Wagner troops who halted their advance had made the right decision.

“The mutiny would have been suppressed anyway; organizers realized their actions were criminal,” said the Russian president, who also thanked those “Wagner soldiers and commanders who did not shed blood.”

However, he also vowed in his address late Monday that the organizers of the armed mutiny will be brought to justice.

He said the goal of the revolt, which occurred when “our comrades are dying” at the front, was to “divide and weaken the country,” which is facing a “colossal external threat” and “unprecedented external pressure.”

In his address, Putin also made clear that from the moment the rebellion began on Friday night – when the mercenaries crossed the border from Ukraine, took the city of Rostov-on-Don and arrived at a point around 200 kilometers outside Moscow – that he had given direct orders to avoid major bloodshed.

“That took time (and also was intended) to give those who had made a mistake the chance to rethink, to understand that their actions are resolutely rejected by society.”

Putin thanked all Russian military personnel who had intervened to halt the mercenaries’ advance and the Russian people for their solidarity and patriotism.

He also said the “vast majority of the Wagner Group fighters and commanders also are Russian patriots (who are) devoted to their people and the state” and have demonstrated that on the battlefield in Ukraine, where they have had an important role in the fighting.

Prigozhin, for his part, said in an audio clip earlier Monday that he never had any intention of overthrowing Putin and had merely been trying to save the private mercenary army from being disbanded.

“The aim of the march was to prevent the disappearance of Wagner (…) We did not seek to overthrow the power in the country,” he said in his first public remarks since the mutiny began on Friday night.

Prigozhin pointed out that this unit “was to cease to exist on July 1 as a result of the intrigues” of the Russian military elite.

July 1 was the deadline set by Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for all volunteers participating in the war in Ukraine to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry.

He claimed that about 30 Wagner troops had been attacked by Russian forces, before a Wagner camp behind the front lines in Ukraine had been hit in an alleged missile barrage.

Prigozhin led his troops across the border into the Rostov region on a “march for justice,” he said.

“We started our march in protest against the injustice (…) in 24 hours we came as close as 200 kilometers from Moscow, entered and took the city of Rostov-on-Don. The civilians were happy to see us. We set an example of how it should have been on February 24, 2022,” when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, he said.

Prigozhin, who gave no details about his current whereabouts or future plans after agreeing with the Kremlin to live in exile in Belarus, said “we turned back in order not to spill the blood of Russian soldiers.”

“Our march put on the table many things we had talked about before: the serious security problems throughout the country. We blocked all military units and airfields that were in our way,” he emphasized.

Prigozhin stressed that in just one day the mercenaries covered a great distance and pointed out that “if the actions at the beginning of the Russian military special operation had been carried out by a unit like Wagner, the campaign would probably have lasted 24 hours.”

“We showed the level of organization that the Russian army should have,” he said.

US President Joe Biden also commented Monday on the internal situation in Russia, saying that Washington and NATO had no involvement in the Wagner Group’s armed uprising.

“This was part of a struggle within the Russian system,” Biden said. EFE