Putin says security forces 'prevented civil war' as Wagner chief Prigozhin is exiled to Belarus

President Putin appeared on the steps of the Kremlin on Tuesday for a televised address, ITV News Senior International correspondent John Irvine reports. Words by Lottie Kilraine, multimedia producer

Russian President Vladimir Putin has praised his security forces who he said "prevented civil war" over the weekend, as the Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was exiled to neighbouring Belarus.

The chaos caused by Prigozhin's short-lived revolt on Saturday ended with retreat but the fallout has continued, despite Russian authorities dropping mutiny charges against the mercenary leader.

Prigozhin and some of his troops would be welcome to stay in Belarus “for some time” at their own expense, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said.

Lukashenko confirmed the Wagner chief's arrival on Tuesday and flight data from earlier in the day showed a Russian-registered Embraer Legacy 600 jet, which is linked to Prigozhin in US sanctions documents, had flown to Belarus from Russia that morning.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko delivering his speech Credit: AP

Belarus is bordered by Russia to the east and northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for 29 years, heavily relying on Russian subsidies and political support, said there is no reason to fear Wagner’s presence in his country.

But exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in a 2020 election that was widely seen as fraudulent and triggered mass protests, disputed this.

“If Wagner sets up military bases on our territory, it will pose a new threat to our sovereignty and our neighbours," she said.

The Russian Defence Ministry said preparations are under way for Wagner to hand over its heavy weapons to the Russian military, although there has been no confirmation of this by Prigozhin.

President Putin appeared on the steps of the Kremlin on Tuesday for a televised address to the nation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to deliver a speech to the units of the Russian Defense Ministry. Credit: AP

“The people and the army were not on the side of the mutineers,” the president told the heads of Russia’s main domestic security services, who had assembled in the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square.

Defence minister Sergei Shoigu, whom Prigozhin had sought to oust with his uprising, was also in attendance.

As part of the effort to cement Putin’s authority following the chaotic response to the mutiny, the ceremony featured the Russian leader walking down the red-carpeted stairs of the Kremlin's 15th century white-stone Palace of Facets to address a lineup of troops.

During the uprising the Wagner mercenaries reportedly shot down at least six Russian helicopters and a military communications plane as they advanced on Moscow, according to Russian media.

The Defence Ministry didn’t release any information about casualties, but media reported that at least a dozen airmen were killed.

During his address on Tuesday, Putin honoured them with a moment of silence.

“Pilots, our combat comrades, died while confronting the mutiny,” he said. "They didn’t waver and fulfilled the orders and their military duty with dignity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to the national anthem prior to delivering a speech to the units of the Defense Ministry. Credit: AP

Over the weekend, the Kremlin pledged not to prosecute Prigozhin and his fighters after he stopped the revolt on Saturday, even though Putin had branded them as "traitors".

Russian authorities announced earlier that they have closed a criminal investigation into the uprising and would not be pressing charges against the Wagner chief or his troops after a negotiated deal.

Asked why the rebels were allowed to get as close as around 200 kilometres (around 125 miles) from Moscow without facing any serious resistance, National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov said authorities tried to assemble a strong force capable of stopping the onslaught.

“We concentrated our forces in one fist closer to Moscow,” he told reporters. “If we spread them thin, they would have come like a knife through butter.”

The charge of mounting an armed mutiny is punishable in Russia by up to 20 years in prison.

The Federal Security Service (FSB) said its investigation found that those involved in the mutiny, “ceased activities directed at committing the crime,” so the case would not be pursued.

Prigozhin escaping prosecution poses a stark contrast to how the Kremlin has treated those staging anti-government protests in Russia, where many opposition figures have been given long sentences.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) posing for a selfie photo with a local civilian after the short-lived rebellion. Credit: AP

In a nationally televised address on Monday night, Putin had blasted organisers of the rebellion, without explicitly naming Prigozhin, as "traitors" who played into the hands of Ukraine’s government and its Western allies.

Earlier, in a defiant statement Prigozhin had taunted the Russian military's top brass but said he hadn’t been seeking to stage a coup against the President.

It still isn't clear whether he will be able to keep his mercenary force, but Prigozhin said, without elaborating, that the Belarusian leadership proposed solutions that would allow Wagner to operate “in a legal jurisdiction".

This week's developments prove to be the latest twist in a series of events that have brought the greatest threat in recent years to President Putin’s grip on power, amid the ongoing 16-month war in Ukraine.

The rift between Putin and Prigozhin is likely to be beyond repair, according to The Institute for the Study of War

The Washington-based thinktank also noted that providing the Wagner chief and his loyalists with Belarus as an apparent safe haven could be a trap.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden's administration announced on Tuesday that it is sending up to $500 million in military aid to Ukraine, including more than 50 heavily armored vehicles and an infusion of missiles for air defense systems.

The aid is aimed at bolstering Ukraine's long awaited counteroffensive, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently acknowledged has been “slower than desired".

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