Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made his first public appearance since a mercenary uprising demanded his ouster, inspecting troops in Ukraine Monday in a video released by his ministry.
He’s the first of three powerful Russian leaders whose diverging interests led to the Wagner Group occupying a Russian city and marching on the capital to be seen since the revolt ended Saturday. Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov also have made no public statements since then. Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t made any public appearances either.
Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin announced an end to the “counter-terrorism regime” imposed on the capital Saturday, during which troops and armored vehicles set up checkpoints on the edges of the city and authorities tore up roads leading into the city.
The Defense Ministry released a video showing Shoigu flying in a helicopter and then attending a meeting with military officers at a military headquarters in Ukraine, showing the minister for the first time since Prigozhin declared a “march of justice” to oust the defense minister and Gerasimov late Friday, during which the mercenaries captured the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and then marched on Moscow.
The rebellion ended on Saturday when Prigozhin ordered his troops back. The Kremlin said it had made a deal that the mercenary chief will move to Belarus and receive an amnesty, along with his soldiers. The mutiny marked the biggest challenge to President Vladimir Putin in more than 20 years of rule.
It was unclear what would ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces. Few details of the deal were released either by the Kremlin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who brokered it. Prigozhin’s whereabouts have been unclear since he drove out of Rostov-on-Don in an SUV Saturday.
Before starting the revolt, Prigozhin had blasted Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov with expletive-ridden insults for months, attacking them for failing to provide his troops with enough ammunition during the battle for Bakhmut, the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.
Putin stood back from the rift, and Shoigu and Gerasimov remained mum, possibly reflecting uncertainty about Putin’s support. Observers said that by failing to end the feud Putin had encouraged Prigozhin to dramatically up the stakes.
Asked by reporters Saturday whether Putin still trusts Shoigu, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded he wasn’t aware of any changes in the president’s attitude. Commenting on whether any changes in military leadership were discussed during negotiations with Prigozhin, Peskov responded that personnel changes were the exclusive prerogative of Putin as the commander-in-chief and so it wasn’t a subject for discussion.
Russian media and commentators speculated that Putin could replace Shoigu with Alexei Dyumin, the governor of the Tula region who had previously served as a a Putin bodyguard and then a deputy defense minister. They noted that Putin, who avoids making decisions under pressure, would likely wait before announcing a shakeup.
The U.S. had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time. That conflicts with Prigozhin’s claim that his rebellion was a response to an attack on his field camps in Ukraine on Friday by the Russian military, which he said killed a large number of his men. The Defense Ministry denied attacking the camps.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said Prigozhin’s march on Moscow appeared to have been planned in advance.
“This is something that would have had to have been planned for a significant amount of time to be executed in the manner in which it was,” Turner said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the weekend’s events as “extraordinary,” recalling that 16 months ago Putin appeared poised to seize the capital of Ukraine and now he has had to defend Moscow from forces led by his onetime protege.
“I think we’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian façade,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“It is too soon to tell exactly where they go and when they get there, but certainly we have all sorts of new questions that Putin is going to have to address in the weeks and months ahead.”
It was not yet clear what the fissures opened by the 24-hour rebellion would mean for the war in Ukraine. But it resulted in some of the best forces fighting for Russia being pulled from the battlefield: the Wagner troops, who had shown their effectiveness in scoring the Kremlin’s only land victory in months, in Bakhmut, and Chechen soldiers sent to stop them on the approach to Moscow.
The Wagner forces’ largely unopposed, rapid advance also exposed vulnerabilities in Russia’s security and military forces. The mercenary soldiers were reported to have downed several helicopters and a military communications plane. The Defense Ministry has not commented.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, speaking to reporters before chairing a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, where they will discuss more support for Ukraine, said that the revolt showed that the war is “cracking Russia’s political system.”
“The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now,” Borrel said. “The monster is acting against his creator. The political system is showing fragilities, and the military power is cracking.””