The Kremlin denounced the Wagner mercenary force for a treasonous stab in the back when it sent a column towards Moscow to oust military top brass, but two days later Russian officials were insisting the crisis was over

Moscow (AFP) - Russia tried to present a return to business as usual Monday for both the Kremlin and the Wagner mercenary army that challenged President Vladimir Putin’s authority in an aborted weekend mutiny.

Putin did not directly address the dramatic events, but made a video speech to a youth forum dubbed the “Engineers of the future” and praised companies for overcoming “severe external challenges”.

Wagner headquarters in Saint Petersburg said it remained open for business, and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the private military firm would continue to operate in Mali and the Central African Republic.

Wagner’s owner Yevgeny Prigozhin was branded a traitor on Saturday when he led the capture of a southern military headquarters overseeing Russia’s Ukraine campaign and sent an armed column towards Moscow in a bid to overthrow the defence ministry top brass.

But, after triggering Russia’s worst security crisis since Putin came to power in 1999, Prigozhin called off his fighters just over 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Moscow.

The Kremlin said he would be permitted to accept exile in Belarus and his troops would not face prosecution.

- Iranian support -

The city of Moscow halted an 'anti-terrorist' security regime to demonstrate a return to normal

By Monday, the Kremlin was straining to appear unflustered and to demonstrate that Putin’s rule is stable and that the campaign in Ukraine would continue.

Putin, his office said, had spoken to Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi by phone and had received Tehran’s “full support”.

He also received a call from Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who also expressed his backing.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, a main targets of revolt, appeared in more pre-recorded footage on state television, apparently visiting troops in Ukraine, but it was not clear when the piece was filmed.

The Russian ministry of defence released handout footage of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu inspecting Russian plans at a command bunker inside Ukraine

Officials in Moscow and in the Voronezh region south of the capital lifted “anti-terrorist” emergency security measures imposed to protect the capital from rebel assault.

Prigozhin himself was last seen on Saturday leaving the southern city of Rostov-on-Don in an armed Wagner convoy, and his location and that of his mobilised and equipped private army was unclear.

On Monday, Wagner’s main headquarters in St Petersburg said: “Despite events that have taken place, the centre continues to work in normal mode in accordance to the law of the Russian Federation.”

Foreign minister Lavrov confirmed that Wagner’s contracts remain secure in Africa, where the outfit ostensibly provides security advisors for local leaders, but stands accused of human rights abuses while seeking to corner sources of mineral wealth.

In Mali and the Central African Republic, Wagner operators “are working there as instructors. This work, of course, will continue,” Lavrov said in an interview with RT, adding that the revolt would not affect Russia’s ties with “partners and friends”.

- ‘Moving forward’ -

Russia’s operation in Ukraine carried on through the crisis as Shoigu – whom Prigozhin had threatened to overthrow – was at pains to demonstrate.

Map of western Russia showing the three oblasts where Wagner group fighters were reported on June 24, before they withdrew on June 25

On Monday, he appeared on state television visiting a Russian command bunker in Ukraine and flying in a helicopter to inspect troops battling a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Ukrainian military leaders, however, insisted they were making progress in the south and east of the country.

“We are knocking the enemy out of its positions on the flanks of the city of Bakhmut,” ground force commander Oleksandr Syrskyi said.

“Ukraine is regaining its territory. We are moving forward,” he said.

Deputy defence minister Ganna Malyar said Ukraine had recaptured the rural settlement of Rivnopil, on the southern front in the Donetsk region.

Ukrainian residents in the frontline town of Druzhkivka, near Bakhmut, also in Donetsk, told AFP that four explosions rocked a residential district overnight.

The blasts severed water and sewage pipes, shattered windows and threw up stones that hit yards and roofs, but municipal authorities said no-one was hurt.

“It was a ‘fun’ night, we haven’t had this for a long time, it’s been quiet for a month or so,” said 66-year-old Lyubov, showing off the new hole in her cement-shingled roof.

The wine-growing and salt-mining city of Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas, was captured in May by Russian forces led by Prighozin’s private army.

The victory was short-lived, however.

With the Wagner chief feuding with Shoigu and Russian commander General Valery Gerasimov, Ukraine launched a counteroffensive.

The Western allies backing Ukraine with weaponry and cash see Putin’s grip on power weakened by both Wagner’s revolt and the operation in Ukraine.

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, visiting Lithuania ahead of the alliance’s Vilnius summit next month, said Putin’s Ukraine campaign had weakened his own position at home.

Germany meanwhile boosted Europe’s defences on its eastern flank facing Russia, announcing it would station a 4,000-strong army brigade in Lithuania, the largest non-local NATO unit yet assigned to the Baltic states.

Prigozhin was last seen late Saturday in an SUV leaving Rostov-on-Don, where his fighters had seized a military headquarters, the nerve centre of the operation in Ukraine.

He was cheered by some local people, and some shook his hand through the car window. Trucks carrying armoured vehicles with fighters on them followed his car.

On Monday, however, Russian news agencies reported that Prigozhin himself was still under investigation for trying to organise an armed rebellion.