Russian officials emphasise unity after aborted mutiny


MOSCOW: Senior Russian officials rallied around President Vladimir Putin on Monday, with questions still unanswered about a mutiny by mercenaries that appeared to pose the greatest threat to his grip on power of his 23-year rule.

On the first working day after fighters of the powerful Wagner Group seized a military headquarters and marched on Moscow, officials still gave no details about the deal that abruptly ended the mutiny.

Mikhail Mishustin, who leads Putin’s cabinet as his appointed prime minister, acknowledged that Russia had faced “a challenge to its stability”, and called for public loyalty.

“We need to act together, as one team, and maintain the unity of all forces, rallying around the president,” he told a televised government meeting.

There was no word about the revolt from Putin himself, who had said on Saturday the rebellion put Russia’s very existence under threat and vowed to punish those behind it. The Kremlin released a video from him congratulating participants of an industrial forum, containing no indication of when it had been filmed.

In another move apparently intended to convey normality, authorities released video showing Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. The mutineers had demanded he be sacked, leading to speculation that his removal might have been part of the arrangement that ended the revolt.

There was still no public sign of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the boss of Wagner and mutiny leader, last seen on Saturday smiling in the back of an SUV as he left the southern city of Rostov-On-Don, captured by his men before he ordered them to stand down.

Russia’s national Anti-Terrorism Committee said the situation in the country was stable. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who had told residents to stay indoors on Saturday as the mutinous fighters raced to within a few hundred kilometres of the capital, said he was cancelling a counter-terrorism security regime.

Prigozhin and his fighters had been offered immunity from prosecution in return for their withdrawal. But state controlled news agencies reported on Monday that the criminal case against Prigozhin remained open and was still being pursued.

Saturday’s extraordinary events left governments, both friendly and hostile to Russia, groping for answers to what happened behind the scenes and what could come next.

‘CRACKS’

Russia’s ally China, where a senior Russian diplomat visited on Sunday, said it supported Moscow in maintaining national stability. Ukraine and some of its Western allies said the turmoil revealed cracks in Russia.

“The political system is showing fragilities, and the military power is cracking,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Luxembourg as he arrived for a meeting with ministers from across the 27-member bloc.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the invasion of Ukraine, which Putin calls a “special military operation” to counter threats, was destroying Russia, and the West would continue to back Kyiv.

On Saturday, Wagner mercenaries fighting in Ukraine crossed into Russia, captured a headquarters for the war in Rostov, and drove most of the 1,100 km (700 miles) to Moscow, meeting no resistance on the ground before abruptly halting their advance.

Their commander, Prigozhin, had demanded that Defence Minister Shoigu and the army’s top general be handed over to him. Video released by the defence ministry on Monday showed Shoigu flying in a plane with a colleague and hearing reports at a command post. There was no evidence of when or where it had been filmed, and it had no sound.

Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, has also not been seen in public since the events. The Kremlin said the question of personnel changes was the sole prerogative of the president and could hardly have been part of any deal.

TURMOIL

In his televised address as events were unfolding on Saturday, Putin drew parallels with the chaos of 1917 that led to the Bolshevik revolution.

NATO said the events showed the scale of the Kremlin’s strategic mistake in waging war on Ukraine and that the Western defence alliance would not be intimidated into ending its support for Ukraine.

Monday has been declared a non-working day in Moscow to allow time for things to settle, and there was little evidence of increased security in the capital.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke with G7 and EU counterparts on Saturday, suggested the turmoil could take months to play out, saying more cracks had emerged in the Russian facade.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy discussed the events in separate phone calls with U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who expressed support.

“The world must put pressure on Russia until international order is restored,” Zelenskiy said on Twitter.

State television said Putin would attend a meeting of Russia’s Security Council this week, without elaborating, and Belarus’ Belta news agency said Putin and Lukashenko spoke again on Sunday, after at least two calls on Saturday.

French President Emmanuel Macron told La Provence newspaper that the rebellion showed up divisions within the Russian camp and the fragility of both its army and Wagner.

A former Putin ally and ex-convict whose forces have fought the bloodiest battles of the 16-month war in Ukraine, Prigozhin, 62, defied orders this month to place his troops under Defence Ministry command.

He launched the rebellion on Friday after alleging the military had killed some of his men in an air strike which the Russian defence ministry denied.

Ukraine says its forces have reclaimed some 130 square km (50 square miles) along the southern front line since the beginning of a counteroffensive earlier this month.

Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar told state television on Monday there had been little significant change in the past week. Russia denied Ukrainian reports of small advances around the battleground city of Bakhmut.

Serhiy Nayev, commander of Ukraine’s Joint Forces, responded to speculative reports that Wagner fighters – reported at the weekend to be heading back to Russian-held areas of Ukraine – could be moved to Belarus to attack Ukraine from the north.

“If this happens and the enemy tries to cross the state border, it will be nothing but suicide for them,” Nayev said on Telegram. —Reuters

Reuters Graphics

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