Putin confirms death of Russian pilots fighting mutineers


MOSCOW:  Russian President Vladimir Putin paid tribute to pilots killed fighting an aborted mutiny and thanked the nation for showing patriotic unity while confirming for the first time that Russian pilots died opposing the Wagner militia group’s march on Moscow.

Putin’s televised address on Monday was his first public comment since Saturday’s armed revolt led by mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, and confirmed reports on social media that Wagner forces had downed Russian aircraft in the fighting.

Thanking the Russian people, servicemen, law enforcement and security services for remaining united to protect “the Fatherland”, Putin said it showed Russia would not succumb to “any blackmail, any attempt to create internal turmoil”.

He said Russia’s enemies wanted to see the country “choke in bloody civil strife”, before singling out the actions of the pilots.

“The courage and self-sacrifice of the fallen heroes-pilots saved Russia from tragic devastating consequences,” Putin said, adding that the rebellion threatened Russia’s very existence and those behind it would be punished.

There has been no official information about how many pilots died or how many aircraft were shot down.

Some Russian Telegram channels monitoring Russia’s military activity, including the blog Rybar with more than a million subscribers, reported on Saturday that 13 Russian pilots were killed during the day-long mutiny.

Among the aircraft downed were three Mi-8 MTPR electronic warfare helicopters, and an Il-18 aircraft with its crew, Rybar reported.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports. It was also not clear in what circumstances the aircraft were shot down and pilots killed.

Putin said the leaders of the mutiny had “engaged in a criminal act, in a split and a weakening of the country, which is now facing a colossal external threat and unprecedented pressure from within.”

The mutiny’s organisers had also betrayed the soldiers that they led, he said.

“They lied to them, they pushed them to death: under fire, to shoot their own,” Putin said. “It is this very phenomenon – fratricide – that is sought by Russia’s enemies.”

He said “steps were taken on my direct instruction to avoid serious bloodshed” during the insurrection, which ended abruptly with Wagner forces standing down and Prigozhin agreeing to go into exile in neighbouring Belarus.

“Time was needed, among other things, to give those who had made a mistake a chance to come to their senses, to realise that their actions were firmly rejected by society, and that the adventure in which they had been involved had tragic and destructive consequences for Russia and for our state,” Putin said.

Wagner leader Prigozhin also spoke in an 11-minute audio message posted on his press service’s Telegram channel, and gave few clues to his whereabouts or the deal under which he halted the move toward Moscow.

He said his men had been forced to shoot down helicopters that attacked them as they drove nearly 800km (500 miles) from the south towards the capital, before abruptly calling off the uprising.

Numerous Western leaders saw the unrest as exposing Putin’s vulnerability following his decision to invade Ukraine 16 months ago.

The Russian president said he would honour his weekend promise to allow Wagner forces to relocate to Belarus, sign a contract with Russia’s Defence Ministry, or return to their families.

Putin thanked Wagner fighters and commanders who stood down to avoid what he called “fratricidal bloodshed”, and said the vast majority of Wagner’s members were patriots.

He made no mention of Prigozhin.

Putin met on Monday night with the heads of Russian security services, including Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, IFX reported, citing a Kremlin spokesperson.

The defence ministry said early on Tuesday that it was conducting tactical fighter jet exercises over the Baltic Sea.

“The crews of the Su-27 (fighter jets) of the Baltic Fleet fired from airborne weapons at cruise missiles and mock enemy aircraft,” the ministry said on the Telegram messaging app.

One of Prigozhin’s principal demands had been that Shoigu be sacked, along with Russia’s top general, who by Monday evening had not appeared in public since the mutiny.

Prigozhin, 62, a former Putin ally and ex-convict whose forces have fought the bloodiest battles of the Ukraine war, defied orders this month to place his troops under Defence Ministry command.

PRIGOZHIN WHEREABOUTS UNCLEAR

Last seen on Saturday night smiling and high-fiving bystanders from the back of an SUV as he withdrew from a Russian city occupied by his men, Prigozhin said his fighters had halted their campaign to avert bloodshed.

“We went as a demonstration of protest, not to overthrow the government of the country,” Prigozhin said in the audio message.

On Saturday, Prigozhin had said he was leaving for Belarus under a deal brokered by its president, Alexander Lukashenko. In Monday’s remarks he said Lukashenko had offered to let Wagner operate under a legal framework, but did not elaborate.

Belarussian state media reported that Lukashenko would speak with journalists on Tuesday, which could potentially shed more light on the whereabouts of Prigozhin.

The White House said it could not confirm whether the Wagner chief was in Belarus.

Russia’s three main news agencies reported on Monday that a criminal case against Prigozhin had not been closed, an apparent reversal of an offer of immunity publicised as part of the deal that persuaded him to stand down.

Lawmaker Leonid Slutsky said in a post on Telegram that Russia needed a contract army of at least seven million military and civilian personnel, on top of the current conscript army, so that there would no longer be a need to use private military companies like Wagner.

 ‘NOTHING TO DO WITH IT’

In comments before a speech at the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden called the mutiny “part of a struggle within the Russian system”. He discussed it in a conference call with key allies who agreed it was vital not to let Putin blame it on the West or NATO, he said.

“We made it clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it,” Biden said.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said U.S. policy did not seek to change the government in Russia.

Foreign governments, both friendly and hostile to Russia, were left groping for answers to what had happened behind the scenes and what could come next.

“The political system is showing fragilities, and the military power is cracking,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Luxembourg.

In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the military had made advances on Monday in all sectors of the front line, calling it a “happy day” in his nightly video address delivered from a train after visiting frontline positions.

Kyiv hopes the chaos caused by the mutiny attempt in Russia will undermine its defences as Ukraine presses on with a counteroffensive to recapture occupied territory.

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