Russia defence chief Shoigu appears in video after Wagner revolt

Footage of Sergey Shoigu visiting troops in Ukraine airs after a rebellion in Russia led by mercenary boss seeking his removal.

Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu, centre, is shown in undated footage that Russian state television aired on June 26, 2023, during a trip to Ukraine to inspect Russian troops [Russian Defence Ministry/Handout via AFP]

Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu has made his first public appearance after Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin demanded he quit in a rebellion in Russia over the weekend that sent shockwaves across the world.

A video released on Monday by Shoigu’s ministry showed him visiting Russian troops in Ukraine.

While it is unclear when the video was filmed, it appears to be aimed at projecting a sense of order after Wagner mercenaries on Saturday seized a Russian city, Rostov-on-Don, and marched seemingly unopposed towards Moscow.

Prigozhin’s fighters advanced on the capital to remove what he called Russia’s corrupt and incompetent military leadership before suddenly heading back to an occupied area of eastern Ukraine after making a deal with the Kremlin to end the operation, which was brokered by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

But since the Wagner chief left Rostov-on-Don in an SUV, few details of the pact he agreed to have been released either by the Kremlin, Lukashenko or Prigozhin himself.

It remains unclear what will ultimately happen to Prigozhin and his forces, but tensions between the mercenary chief and Russia’s military have been escalating for months.

In recent weeks, he has released videos almost daily criticising the Russian Ministry of Defence, arguing that its leaders are incompetent and it does not provide enough support to his fighters in Ukraine.

Journalist Yulia Shapovalova told Al Jazeera from Moscow that a criminal case of an “armed rebellion” was initiated on Friday against Prigozhin after he accused the Russian army of shelling Wagner positions.

“Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov told reporters that the criminal case against Prigozhin would be dropped and Prigozhin would go to Belarus – and his Wagner mercenaries who participated in the rebellion would not be prosecuted,” she said.

But on Monday, several Russian media outlets reported that Prigozhin remains under investigation by the Federal Security Service.

“At the moment, Prigozhin’s whereabouts are unknown,” Shapovalova said, adding that the Wagner chief could also be accused of “active disobedience”.

Shoigu’s appearance on Monday could rule out “theories of his possible resignation”.

But whether there will be “rearrangements within the ministry of defence, it is hard to say now”, she cautioned.

Prigozhin has regularly lashed out at Shoigu but has not directly attacked the Russian president, whose patronage helped the billionaire build his fortune and power.

Even so, the rebellion is widely viewed as a problem for Putin, who has not been by challenged in such a manner in more than 20 years as leader of Russia.

Asked by reporters on Saturday whether Putin trusts Shoigu, Peskov said he wasn’t aware of any changes in the president’s attitude.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom said this weekend’s events have helped Ukraine “gain impetus”.

“There has been little evidence that Russia maintains any significant ground forces operational level reserves which could be used to reinforce against the multiple threats it is now facing in widely separated sectors,” the UK’s Ministry of Defence said.

Other Western diplomats noted how the Wagner uprising has displayed Russia’s vulnerabilities.

Speaking to the US broadcaster NBC, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the revolt “extraordinary.”

“I think we’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian façade,” Blinken said.

Before a meeting with European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josef Borrell, told reporters: “The monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now.”

“The monster is acting against his creator. The political system is showing fragilities, and the military power is cracking,” Borrell said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies