The mercenary chief whose rebels seized a Russian city and marched toward Moscow over the weekend says he acted to protect his fighters and not to topple Vladimir Putin, according to a recording released on Monday.
Earlier, the Kremlin scrambled to project control and stability, with Putin, his defense chief and prime minister all making business-as-usual appearances, talking about everything from the war in Ukraine to engineering technologies. Restrictions faced by the Russian public were also lifted.
"This unit was supposed to have ended its existence on July 1, 2023," Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a nearly 12-minute audio recording on his press office's channel on Telegram, referring to the date by when the Russian defense ministry said all volunteer and mercenary forces had to sign up with the military.
It was the first time that Prigozhin, who did not disclose his location or when he recorded the message, had spoken since he abruptly ended his revolt on Saturday.
"Experienced fighters, experienced commanders will be simply 'smeared' and will basically be used as meat," he said, using Russian slang for "destroyed," adding: "We did not have the goal of toppling the existing regime and legitimately-elected government."
The incident posed the biggest challenge to Putin's rule in more than 20 years, and followed nearly a year-and-a-half of war in Ukraine, during which beleaguered Russian forces have failed to capture and hold swaths of the country.
The weekend's events were a stunning escalation in a long-running feud between Prigozhin and the military’s top brass, whom he has repeatedly accused of starving Wagner of weapons and supplies.
Prigozhin also repeated allegations that nearly 30 mercenaries had been killed in Ukraine when a Wagner unit was fired on by the Russian military, which served as a "trigger" for the revolt.
He also said his fighters had turned back before reaching Moscow because it had become obvious that “a lot of blood would be shed” if they continued.
The future of Prigozhin and his rebels is uncertain. Putin’s regime appeared weakened, having promised to pardon those it labeled traitors mere hours earlier. And the Kremlin’s "special military operation" faced new complications, though it was unclear exactly how crucial the chaos inside Russia might prove on the battlefield.
Time to 'rally around' Putin?
The man the rebels sought to oust appeared for the first time since they launched the revolt, with Defense Minster Sergei Shoigu shown visiting troops in a video released by his ministry early Monday.
It was not immediately clear where or when the video was taken, but its release was seen as a deliberate signal as rumors grew over the future of the country's military leaders and the deal the Kremlin claimed to have reached to end the crisis.
In a sign of the frenzied speculation on Russian social media, some military bloggers — who have become increasingly influential voices in the country — suggested that the footage was recorded ahead of Prigozhin’s rebellion. NBC News was not able to verify those claims.
Shoigu was the first top Russian official shown publicly since the revolt.
In a video appearance, Putin addressed an engineering forum. It was not clear when the video was recorded, though the Kremlin said the Russian leader also held calls with the leaders of Qatar and Iran on Monday.
Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin also held a meeting with deputy prime ministers.
During the meeting, he alluded to "the need to consolidate society" and "rally around the president" after what he said was an "attempt to destabilize the internal situation in Russia," the state news agency Ria reported.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said Monday he was lifting all restrictions from the “counterterrorism regime” imposed in a bid to halt the mercenaries' march. Military checkpoints had been established, roads torn up and public events canceled.
The effort to restore control followed a mutiny that left Putin's strongman rule in unprecedented uncertainty.
Wagner has been responsible for some of Russia’s few victories in Ukraine, but Prigozhin has grown increasingly hostile toward his own country’s army. He blamed Shoigu and other leaders for botching the war, and announced late Friday that his troops would be leaving Ukraine to return home and effectively try to depose the defense minister.
That quickly turned into a direct confrontation with the Kremlin, as Prigozhin and his fighters bore down on Moscow after Putin denounced the move as a "stab in the back."
Then they suddenly turned back, the product of a purported deal that would see Prigozhin leave for Belarus and the charges dropped against his fighters — whom Putin had hours earlier accused of treason.
However, Russian state-run media reported that the criminal case initially launched against Prigozhin for inciting an armed rebellion was not closed. The reports cited an unnamed source close to the prosecutor general’s office.
NBC News has reached out to the prosecutor for comment.
The Wagner chief was filmed late Saturday leaving Rostov-on-Don, the southern Russian city where his men had captured strategic buildings, to cheers from the public.
It comes after Putin for months had allowed the feud between Prigozhin and the leaders in Moscow to fester.
Appointed defense minister in 2012, Shoigu, 68, is not a career soldier but is one of Putin’s closest allies and has a reputation as the Russian leader’s loyal “adjutant.”
However, Putin did not publicly shield Shoigu or the general staff chief, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, from Prigozhin's sharp criticism until it exploded into open mutiny.
The rebellion has left many wondering about the future of both men, as their boss confronts the challenge of restoring his authority.