June 26 (Reuters) – Russia has faced “a challenge to its stability” and must remain united behind President Vladimir Putin, its prime minister said on Monday, after mercenaries briefly occupied a strategic command centre for its Ukraine war and marched on Moscow.
The armed mutiny over the weekend by the powerful Wagner Group and its abrupt ending with no apparent penalties for the perpetrators or their leader were followed on Monday by official moves to return the country to normal.
The extraordinary events left governments, both friendly and hostile to Russia, groping for answers to what could happen next in the country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said during a televised government meeting that Russia had faced “a challenge to its stability”.
“We need to act together, as one team, and maintain the unity of all forces, rallying around the president,” he said.
Russia’s national Anti-Terrorism Committee said the situation in the country was stable and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said he was cancelling a counter-terrorism regime imposed in the capital.
Russia’s ally China, where a senior Russian diplomat visited on Sunday, said it supported Moscow in maintaining national stability while Ukraine and some of its Western allies said the turmoil revealed cracks in Russia.
“The political system is showing fragilities, and the military power is cracking,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Luxembourg as he arrived for a meeting with ministers from across the 27-member bloc.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which he calls a “special military operation” to counter a threat to Russia from there and the West, was destroying Russia and the West would continue to back Kyiv.
Wagner mercenaries fighting in Ukraine who crossed into Russia on Saturday halted their advance on Moscow, withdrew from the southern Russian city of Rostov and headed back to their bases in the evening under an amnesty granting them safety.
Their commander, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had demanded that Russia’s defence minister and the army’s top general be handed over to him, would move to Belarus under the deal mediated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Prigozhin, who has accused both men of gross incompetence and corruption, said he wanted to “restore justice”.
A video released by the defence ministry on Monday showed Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu flying in a plane with a colleague and hearing reports at a command post. It was unclear when or where it was shot and had no sound.
Putin, who had said on Saturday the rebellion put Russia’s very existence under threat and vowed to punish those behind the revolt, has made no public comment or appearance since.
A smiling Prigozhin was last seen heading away from Rostov in an SUV, as his men exchanged fist bumps with passers by before pulling out. Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, has also not been seen in public since the events.
The Kremlin said the question of personnel changes was the sole prerogative of the president and could hardly have been part of any deal.
The developments were, at face value, one of the biggest challenges to his rule after more than two decades in power.
In his televised address as events were unfolding on Saturday, Putin drew parallels with the chaos of 1917 that led to the Bolshevik revolution.
NATO said the events showed the scale of the Kremlin’s strategic mistake in waging war on Ukraine and that the Western defence alliance would not be intimidated into ending its support for Ukraine.
Monday has been declared a non-working day in Moscow to allow time for things to settle, and there was little evidence of increased security in the capital.
“Saturday was a very emotional and tense day,” Russia’s ministry of digital affairs said, recommending that IT, telecoms and media companies give employees the day off on Monday.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested the turmoil could take months to play out.
“We’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian facade,” Blinken told NBC’s “Meet the Press” programme on Sunday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy discussed the events in Russia in separate phone calls with U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Biden and Trudeau both expressed support for Ukraine as it pursues a counteroffensive to recover territory seized by Russia, according to official statements.
“The world must put pressure on Russia until international order is restored,” Zelenskiy said on Twitter.
State television said Putin would attend a meeting of Russia’s Security Council this week, without elaborating, and Belarus’ Belta news agency said Putin and Lukashenko spoke again on Sunday, after at least two calls on Saturday.
French President Emmanuel Macron told La Provence newspaper that the rebellion showed up divisions within the Russian camp and the fragility of both its army and Wagner.
A former Putin ally and ex-convict whose forces have fought the bloodiest battles of the 16-month war in Ukraine, Prigozhin, 62, this month defied orders to place his troops under Defence Ministry command.
He launched the rebellion on Friday after alleging the military had killed some of his men in an air strike which the Russian defence ministry denied.
Ukraine says its forces have reclaimed some 130 square km (50 square miles) along the southern front line since the beginning of their counteroffensive earlier this month.
Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar told state television on Monday there had been little significant change in the past week and Russia denied Ukrainian reports of small advances around the battleground city of Bakhmut.
Serhiy Nayev, commander of Ukraine’s Joint Forces, responded to speculative reports that Wagner fighters – reported at the weekend to be heading back to Russian-held areas of Ukraine – could be moved to Belarus to attack Ukraine from the north.
“If this happens and the enemy tries to cross the state border, it will be nothing but suicide for them,” Nayev said on Telegram.