Prigozhin claims he wasn’t trying to overthrow Putin
Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, leaving Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on Saturday
By VALERIE HOPKINS
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group who mounted a brief uprising against Russia’s military command over the weekend, broke a long period of silence on Monday to deny, once more, that he had any intention of seizing power with his march on Moscow.
“We went to demonstrate our protest, and not to overthrow the government in the country,” he said in an 11-minute stream of consciousness voice memo published on the messaging app Telegram. The statement renewed his sharp criticism of Russia’s military leadership, both for what he claims was shabby treatment of his fighters and its handling of the invasion of Ukraine.
Prigozhin said the protest was aimed at a move by the Ministry of Defense to force his mercenaries to sign contracts with the government, which he said would have effectively halted Wagner’s activities in Ukraine as of July 1. The fighters, Prigozhin said, were planning to give up their heavy weapons to the Russian army until they were attacked from behind on Friday night, killing at least 30 Wagner soldiers — a claim for which there has been no independent evidence.
That’s when, he said, he decided to send one group of fighters to take the city of Rostov-on-Don, the home of the Russian southern command about 60 miles from the border with Ukraine, and another group to Moscow to register their anger.
“The purpose of the campaign was to prevent the destruction of the Wagner PMC and to bring to justice those persons who, by their unprofessional actions, made a huge number of mistakes during this process,” he said, obliquely referring to the Defense Ministry leadership.
The Wagner founder has spent months assailing Russia’s military leadership, which Prigozhin has long feuded with and accused of mismanaging the war effort. In Telegram posts that mixed self-aggrandizing statements and profanity-laced complaints, he accused military leaders of failing to supply his fighters with ammunition even as they were engaging in one of the bloodiest fights of the war, the taking of the ruined city of Bakhmut.
But Prigozhin had not been heard from since he called off his mutiny on Saturday, adding to the confusion surrounding an episode that had challenged Russia’s veneer of political stability. Hours after President Vladimir Putin labeled him a traitor and vowed to hold him accountable, Prigozhin ceased his advance on Moscow and agreed to withdraw from Rostov-on-Don under a deal that would drop the investigation of him and allow him to go to Belarus.
His voice memo, some analysts suggest, is a sign he wants to continue to be active in political and military affairs. In it, Prigozhin praised his fighters, saying they had shown professionalism and given the Russian public a “master class” in how the invasion of Ukraine should have been initiated last year. If Wagner had been in charge, he claimed, the completion of Russia’s military goals would have taken mere “days.”
Although the Kremlin said on Saturday that the deal to end hostilities — which Prigozhin again said he accepted in order to avoid bloodshed — would drop the case against him, there were signs Monday that Prigozhin could still face charges.
According to Russian media reports published Monday, the criminal case against Prigozhin remains open and the charges against him have not been dropped. Kommersant, a Russian newspaper, and the country’s three main news agencies — Tass, RIA and Interfax — all reported that the Federal Security Service, or FSB, continued to investigate.
The publications, all either state-controlled or affiliated with the Kremlin, cited anonymous sources, so their reports could not be independently verified. If the proceedings continue, Prigozhin could face up to 20 years in prison.
Even if the case is dropped, critics of Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko, have raised doubts over whether Prigozhin would be safe there, given the government’s close ties to Putin, who has been a crucial source of support for Lukashenko.
Prigozhin was last seen in public late Saturday, smiling and shaking hands with supporters when he left the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don after he called an end to his brief uprising and turned back the column of soldiers he had sent on a march to Moscow.
Since then, his location has been unknown. On Sunday evening, Prigozhin’s press service told RTVI, a Russian TV channel, that he “says hi to everyone and will answer questions” when he has good cellphone reception.
Despite the severity of Prigozhin’s actions over the weekend, some Russian officials have been reluctant to criticize Wagner fighters, who have proved themselves to be effective, if brutal, in fighting on Russia’s behalf in Ukraine and in other conflicts.
Andrei Kartapolov, the chair of the Russian Parliament’s defense committee, said Sunday that the Wagner fighters who took over the army headquarters in Rostov-on-Don “did not do anything reprehensible” and had simply “followed the orders of their command.”
“They didn’t offend anyone, they didn’t break anything,” he said. “No one has the slightest claim against them — neither the residents of Rostov, nor the military personnel of the Southern Military District, nor the law enforcement agencies.”