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Putin addresses Russians after Wagner Group's failed uprising

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Two presidents are talking of a mutiny in Russia.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden commented after staying carefully silent for days. We'll hear him in a moment. Russia's Vladimir Putin also fell silent for a couple of days, but then he gave a speech about the private military contractors who briefly marched toward Moscow. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, called off his advance and accepted exile in Belarus.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes joins us now from Moscow to discuss. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

FADEL: So what did Putin say to the Russian people?

MAYNES: You know, state media initially reported Putin's spokesman had billed this speech as determining the fate of Russia. The spokesman now says he never used those words. Either way, this address seemed less about the future of the country and more about Putin reasserting control, placing himself back at the center of events. The Russian leader was visibly still angry about the uprising, denouncing the leaders of the insurrection as criminals but making clear that he, Putin, had been firmly in charge the whole time. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Putin says that from the very outset of events, he gave direct orders that steps should be taken to minimize bloodshed. But that had required time, mainly for the Wagner fighters to realize the mistake they'd made and the futility of the uprising. Now, Putin also said this deal for Wagner, this amnesty initially brokered by the leader of Belarus, was, in fact, Putin's idea. Wagner fighters, Putin said, now had a choice. They could sign up with the military, go home to their families or choose exile in Belarus, where Wagner's leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin - that's Putin's former ally who led the rebellion and who the president did not mention by name in his speech - has also been offered safe passage.

FADEL: So what do we know about Prigozhin at this point? Has he taken the deal? Do we know where he is?

MAYNES: Yeah. Belarusian media today reported that a plane believed to be used by Prigozhin landed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, this morning. Also, Russia's federal security services, the FSB, announced this morning they dropped this insurrection charge against Prigozhin and the rest of the Wagner fighters. The question now seems to be whether Prigozhin will keep his end of whatever bargain he made with Putin. Yesterday, Prigozhin issued a mea culpa on social media in which he basically said this was all a big misunderstanding, that Wagner was protesting a decision that would put them under the authority of the defense ministry leadership, leadership they consider incompetent. But they had never had any desire to overthrow the government or challenge the Russian leader.

FADEL: It feels like as quick as it started, it ended. So is all this really over at this point?

MAYNES: You know, it does seem too tidy an end to what's been a really messy subplot of infighting between Prigozhin and the military leadership amid the war in Ukraine. Lost in all the political intrigue here is the fact that as many as 15 Russian servicemen were killed in fighting between Wagner and the army as Prigozhin's mercenary (ph) led this "Mad Max"-style run on Moscow Saturday. Also, the initial reason for all this, you know, these Wagner allegations of incompetence by the top brass, are still out there, left to fester. In his comments yesterday, Prigozhin said the ease of Wagner's move into Russia, seizing a major city in the south and then moving on to the capital, was all the proof you needed. And yet President Putin met with his top security officials, including the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, who's been on the receiving end of Prigozhin's ire this whole time, and basically told them, job well done. And in fact, Putin, speaking at the Kremlin today, seemed to suggest this whole episode was, in a way, something to celebrate, that Russia's enemies wanted the country to descend into civil war. And yet Russians had come together and stopped it. You know, the country and its security forces passed the test when it mattered most.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.