Russia crisis: Wagner group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin says he did not aim to overthrow government

The boss of Russia's Wagner mercenary group re-emerged on Monday (local time), two days after leading an aborted mutiny, saying he had never intended to overthrow the government and giving few clues about his own fate or the deal under which he stood down.

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

"We went as a demonstration of protest, not to overthrow the government of the country," Prigozhin said in an 11-minute audio message. "Our march showed many things we discussed earlier: the serious problems with security in the country."

He said his goal had been to prevent his Wagner militia's destruction, and to force accountability on commanders who had botched Russia's military campaign in Ukraine. He claimed his fighters had not engaged in combat on the ground in Russia, and regretted having to shoot down Russian aircraft that had fired on them.

"We halted at the moment when the first assault unit deployed its artillery (near Moscow), conducted reconnaissance and realised that a lot of blood would be spilled."

He made no direct reference to his own whereabouts, or provide further details of the mysterious agreement that had brought a halt to his mutiny.

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.


Prigozhin shocked the world by leading Saturday's armed revolt, only to abruptly call it off as his fighters approached the capital having shot down several aircraft but meeting no resistance on the ground during a dash of nearly 800 km (500 miles).

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.

US President Joe Biden called the mutiny "part of a struggle within the Russian system". He had 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.

There was no word about the revolt from Putin himself since Saturday, when he said the rebellion put Russia's very existence under threat and vowed to punish those behind it.

On Monday, the Kremlin released a video of him congratulating participants of an industrial forum, which included no indication of when it had been filmed.

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.

Authorities also released video showing Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu flying in a plane and being briefed, also containing no evidence of when it was filmed.

One of Prigozhin's principal demands had been that Shoigu be sacked, along with Russia's top general, who by Monday evening had yet to appear in public since the mutiny.


Russian officials sought to project calm. 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.

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.

Russia's ally China, where a senior Russian diplomat visited on Sunday, said it supported Moscow in maintaining national stability.

Ukraine and its Western allies said the turmoil revealed cracks in Putin's 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.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia's intelligence services were investigating whether Western spy agencies played a role in the aborted mutiny, the TASS news agency reported. It cited no evidence.

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

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

Ukraine hopes the chaos caused by the mutiny will undermine Russia's defences as Kyiv presses on with a counteroffensive, begun earlier this month to recapture territory which Moscow claims to have annexed.

On Monday, Ukraine said its forces had recaptured the small southern village of Rivnopil, the ninth village it says it has retaken since launching the counteroffensive, and first in more than a week. Russia said it had foiled Ukrainian attacks.