WARSAW – Civil war. An evil that must be stopped. Fratricide. A bug about to be squashed.
The dramatic weekend rebellion by a mercenary warlord in Russia that challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin was punctuated by dramatic language from the key protagonists — and some long silences — as the world held its collective breath at the biggest challenge to Putin's rule of more than two decades.
Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin incited a rebellion against Russia's military leaders and sent his troops toward Moscow but aborted his mutiny when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko brokered an agreement that included exile for the warlord in Belarus. Though short-lived, the revolt rattled Russian power circles, tarnished Putin’s aura of complete control and gave Ukrainians hope that Russian infighting could help them.
Many questions remain unanswered about how Prigozhin managed to get 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Moscow with little resistance. But a lot of words went back and forth. Here is a look at the past several days with a focus on comments by key figures — Prigozhin, Putin and Lukashenko — as well as by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and U.S. President Joe Biden.
DAY 1: THE REVOLT GETS UNDERWAY
Prigozhin had been hurling expletive-laced insults at Russia’s military brass for months before escalating his confrontation on Friday night. In a significant challenge to the Kremlin, he argued that Russia's stated reasons for invading Ukraine — a threat from NATO and neo-Nazis — were lies.
“The evil embodied by the country’s military leadership must be stopped,” the 62-year-old shouted in a recorded statement released Friday. He said his forces weren’t seeking to challenge Putin and other government structures, but that: “Justice in the armed forces will be restored, and then justice will be restored in all of Russia.”
His troops have carried out war atrocities in Ukraine, Syria and Africa, and Prigozhin doesn't oppose the war in Ukraine. He wants it prosecuted more effectively. His forces, boosted by tens of thousands of convicted felons conscripted from prisons, have been some of the most effective in the 16-month war.
For months, he accused the military brass of starving his forces of ammunition. A video in May showed him standing in front of the bloodied bodies of his slain troops yelling obscenities at Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, calling them weak and incompetent and blaming them for the carnage.
“They came here as volunteers and they died to let you lounge in your mahogany offices,” Prigozhin shouted. “You are sitting in your expensive clubs, your children are enjoying good living and filming videos on YouTube. Those who don’t give us ammunition will be eaten alive in hell!”
Prigozhin, who said he had 25,000 troops to march towards Moscow with him, vowed that his troops would punish Shoigu and urged the army not to offer resistance: “This is not a military coup, but a march of justice.”
DAY 2: PUTIN ADDRESSES THE NATION, PRIGOZHIN RETREATS
As Prigozhin's forces set up camp in Rostov-on-Don, Putin made a televised address to the nation Saturday morning calling the uprising “a stab in the back” and vowing harsh punishments for its organizers.
Without mentioning Prigozhin by name, Putin denounced “anarchy and fratricide.” He compared the actions of the rebels with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that led to civil war and the collapse of imperial Russia.
The fact that he never mentioned Prigozhin by name, just as he never mentions the name of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, is itself meaningful, argues Konstantin Sonin, a Russian professor of political economy at the University of Chicago. “It means that he takes the situation extremely seriously and he is rattled inside,” Sonin said.
Prigozhin initially said his fighters would not surrender, as “we do not want the country to live on in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”
“Regarding the betrayal of the motherland, the president was deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our homeland,” he said.
The Russian military was fortifying the defenses around Moscow, and Lukashenko told Prigozhin he was about to get "squashed like a bug,” he later recalled.
By the evening, Lukashenko had brokered a deal promising Prigozhin immunity from prosecution even though his forces had shot down Russian helicopters and a military communications plane, killing about a dozen airmen. It was a remarkable outcome given that many other Russians have been imprisoned for the smallest of antiwar gestures.
Zelenskyy said Moscow was suffering “full-scale weakness” and that Kyiv was protecting Europe from “the spread of Russian evil and chaos.”
Prigozhin ended Saturday with crowds cheering him and his Wagner troops, and they began their retreat.
DAY 3: PRIGOZHIN AND PUTIN GO SILENT, MOSCOW RETURNS TO NORMAL
After a day of such drama, the world on Sunday awaited news about Prigozhin's whereabouts and fate. In Moscow, life was returning to normal. People packed cafes and there was little sign of the “counterterrorist regime” of restrictions on movement and enhanced security declared the day before. Anchors on state-controlled television stations cast the deal ending the crisis as a show of Putin’s wisdom and aired footage of Wagner troops retreating.
Prigozhin went completely silent. When The Associated Press wrote to his press office, it got a reply saying: "He says hi to everyone and will answer the questions when he gets a normal connection.” Many questions continued to swirl, including if Prigozhin would be taking a larger contingent of Wagner fighters with him to Belarus — and whether he himself would go there.
Meanwhile, Biden spoke to Zelenskyy and “reaffirmed unwavering U.S. support,” the White House said.
Zelenskyy said he told Biden that the aborted rebellion in Russia had “exposed the weakness of Putin’s regime.”
DAY 4: PRIGOZHIN, PUTIN AND BIDEN SPEAK
After his day of silence, Prigozhin issued an 11-minute audio statement on Monday in which he denied trying to attack the Russian state and said he acted in response to a deadly attack on his force. “We started our march because of an injustice,” he said.
Putin, in his first public comments since the rebellion, said “Russia’s enemies” had hoped the mutiny would succeed in dividing and weakening Russia, “but they miscalculated.” He identified the enemies as “the neo-Nazis in Kyiv, their Western patrons and other national traitors.”
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the special services were investigating whether Western intelligence services were involved.
Early in the war, President Biden went off-script during a visit to Warsaw and said of Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” But faced with what looked to many like a possible coup, Biden became decidedly cautious.
Biden denied any involvement by the U.S. or NATO in the rebellion led by Prigozhin, who also who ran the Internet Research Agency, which organized an online interference operation during the 2016 U.S. election that brought Donald Trump to power.
“We made clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it,” Biden said. “This was part of a struggle within the Russian system.”
DAY 5: PRIGOZHIN ARRIVES IN BELARUS
A private jet believed to belong to Prigozhin flew from Rostov to an air base southwest of the Belarusian capital of Minsk, according to data from FlightRadar24. Belarusian President Lukashenko confirmed that Prigozhin had arrived in Belarus, and said the warlord and some of his troops were welcome to stay “for some time” at their own expense.
Meanwhile, Moscow said preparations were underway for Wagner’s troops fighting in Ukraine, to hand over their heavy weapons to Russia’s military.
Russian authorities also said they closed a criminal investigation into the uprising and were pressing no armed rebellion charge against Prigozhin or his followers. Still, Putin appeared to set the stage for financial wrongdoing charges against an affiliated organization Prigozhin owns — or at least cast him in a negative light.
Putin also sought to project stability and authority. In a Kremlin ceremony, the president walked down the red-carpeted stairs of the 15th century white-stone Palace of Facets to address soldiers and law enforcement officers, thanking them for their actions to avert the rebellion.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for 29 years while relying on Russian subsidies and support, made clear he saw the events as an existential threat to his own state, which has become a vassal of sorts to Russia.
“If Russia collapses," he said, “we all will perish under the debris.”
Associated Press journalist Dasha Litvinova contributed from Tallinn, Estonia.