Business as usual, Mr President? Vladimir Putin breaks his silence in ‘pre-recorded’ interview about ‘stepping up efforts’ in Ukraine after Prigozhin’s failed coup ‘inflicted worst daily air force losses of the war with 39 pilots and crew killed by Wagner’
He faces expectation to replace top war commanders or face new insurrection
Coup leader Prigozhin agreed to be based across the border in Belarus – for now
For the latest news and updates on the failed coup follow our live blog
By WILL STEWART and MIRIAM KUEPPER and NATASHA ANDERSON
Vladimir Putin has broken his silence about ‘stepping up efforts’ in Ukraine in pre-recorded interview that aired after he suffered his worst daily air force losses of the war.
The Russian president, on state television today, said he was ‘confident’ in his forces where he alleged are ‘in a position to implement all the plans and tasks ahead of us’.
Putin claimed his optimism applied to Moscow’s ‘defence’, ‘special military operation’, and the ‘economy as a whole and its individual areas’. He also added that a meeting of the country’s Security Council will still take place next week as planned.
His speech aired today after it was claimed that Wagner mercenary fighters killed 39 pilots and crew by downing strike helicopters and a military plane during Prigozhin’s rebellion.
Putin is also believed to be facing the humbling expectation to replace his top two war commanders – close ally defence minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the army staff general Valery Gerasmivov – or face new insurrection.
Coup leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, once a Putin loyalist, has agreed to be based across the border in Belarus – for now. Out of jail, and free to run his large mercenary army, he still poses an acute threat to the 70-year-old Russian president.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, on state television today, said he was ‘confident’ in his forces where he alleged are ‘in a position to implement all the plans and tasks ahead of us’
Coup leader Yevgeny Prigozhin (pictured), once a Putin loyalist, has agreed to be based across the border in Belarus – for now
Putin is believed to have suffered grievous losses as he sought to halt the Wagner ‘march of justice’ against his corrupt regime towards Moscow as the Wagner Group reportedly killed pilots and crew members during their attempted ‘military coup’.
The Wagner group claimed to have shot down multiple Russian helicopters during its assault. Shocking footage shows huge black plumes of smoke rising into the air on a field after what is claimed to be a helicopter was targeted and burst into flames.
Russian forces appeared to confirm three of their attack helicopters had been shot down by Wagner.
Putin has not publicly commented on the deal that was struck to apparently de-escalate the crisis.
State television released excerpts today of an interview in which he said he was giving top priority to the conflict in Ukraine and was in constant contact with the defence ministry.
However the interview appeared to have been recorded before the mutiny and he made no reference to Saturday’s events.
State television also said Putin would attend a meeting of Russia’s Security Council this coming week, without elaborating.
Western leaders had expressed concern over the turmoil in Russia, which has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
The Russians are reportedly seeking to cover-up the losses of up to 39 pilots and crew in a few hours.
They allegedly included some of Russia’s leading air force crew members with one account saying 20-plus combat pilots were killed.
Putin is believed to have lost six helicopters – including three Mi-8 MTPRs specialising in electronic warfare – as well as a sophisticated Il-22 plane used to conduct battle plans at high altitude.
A desperate quick fix deal saw Prigozhin’s Wagner heavily armed force halt their march on Moscow in return for a deal that drops all treason charges against him and his men.
It avoided a potential Russian v Russian bloodbath at the gates of Moscow.
Yet Putin has never seemed so weak in almost a quarter of a century at the helm of Russia as president or premier.
Russia analysts said that the 70-year-old – who has served continuously as president or prime minister since 1999 – was wounded in the battle.
Garry Kasparov, the chess champion who has become one of the foremost leaders of the Russian democratic opposition, said Putin had been ‘humiliated’ by Prigozhin.
‘The game ended with Putin’s worst humiliation – a run for his life from Moscow when Prigozhin’s army was hundreds of miles away,’ he told CNN.
Kasparov added: ‘Many of Putin’s top officials ran for cover. A dictator relies on his aura of invincibility.’
Sergey Sanovich, Hoover Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, who specializes in disinformation and autocracies, said Putin had never looked so weak.
He said needing Belarus’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, to negotiate with Prigozhin on his behalf was a sign of how enfeebled he was.
‘Prigozhin makes a daring move and gets away with it, potentially with additional gains to come,’ said Sanovich.
‘Lukashenko saves the day. Putin reduced to a bystander, complaining on TV and letting his top generals be humiliated.
‘Never in a quarter century Putin looked so ineffectual and hapless.’
Sanovich’s view on the involvement of Lukashenko was shared by Michael McFaul, Barack Obama’s advisor on Russia from 2009-11, who then became the U.S. ambassador to Moscow.
McFaul tweeted: ‘Putin could not control a mercenary force that he created & run by his buddy. He had to rely on Lukashenko of all people to cut a deal with a guy he called just hours ago a traitor.
‘These are signs of real weakness, not strength. What has weakened Putin’s grip on power? His disastrous war in Ukraine.
‘The longer the war continues, the weaker Putin’s regime becomes. Those that want to avoid Russian state collapse (i.e. Xi) should be pushing Putin to end his war.’
Among Putin’s losses is apparently a Ilyushin-22, which appears to have been shot down by a Pantsir missile system secretly supplied to Wagner by Russia’s own forces.
At first the aircraft was identified as an Il-18 turboprop plane, and it likely used such markings – but was in fact an Il-22 used for secretive command and control missions in wartime.
Ten crew were on board, according to Russian Channel One correspondent Irina Kuksenkova.
It is likely a ‘high ranking general’ and other top brass were on board, revealed former Soviet military tactician and politician Viktor Alksnis, now an analyst known as the Black Colonel.
But he indicated the death toll was almost certainly higher, amid reports that the Russian state media has been ordered to obscure the true figure.
‘I assume that the total number of cabin crew and task force on board the Il-22 ranged from 15 to 20 people. They all died,’ he posted.
Putin also lost a regular Mi-8, a Ka-52 strike helicopter and an Mi-35.
‘As a result of the destruction of five helicopters and one aircraft by the Wagner rebels between 34 to 39 people were killed,’ estimated Alksnis.
Some 19 of these were in the five downed helicopters, he made clear.
More damage was done in a day than the Ukrainians have managed in the war.
‘It should be noted that our Aerospace Forces did not suffer such losses even in the most difficult days of the special military operation in Ukraine,’ said the Black Colonel.
All the losses were caused by Russia’s Wagner forces shooting down Russia’s regular forces – yet under the terms of the patched-up peace deal no-one will be prosecuted. The bloody fiasco can only benefit Ukraine.
The dictator (pictured) suffered his worst daily air force losses in the war as rebel Wagner fighters repeatedly hit his strike helicopters and a high-flying military plane suspected to be carrying a top general
As part of the hasty peace deal between Putin and Prigozhin – brokered by Belarus tyrant Alexander Lukashenko – the billionaire Wagner chief will pay compensation of almost half a million pounds to the families of the slain Russian airmen.
As recriminations sounded today, Telegram channel Fighterbomber – with almost 400,000 followers – demanded: ‘Which idiot with big stars on his shoulder straps ordered a transfer of the Pantsir air defence system to an illegal armed group [Wagner], a gang…? Will this idiot go to a military tribunal?’
Putin and his top commanders ‘gave birth to this monster [Prigozhin] and now they are trying to fight it’.
By today, no details of the dead air crew were revealed and Moscow was apparently engaged in a campaign to keep their names secret.
Hours after saying the coup leaders including Prigozhin would suffer ‘inevitable punishment’ he revealed that no-one would suffer sanctions over the insurrection.
‘There was a higher goal: to avoid bloodshed, to avoid internal confrontation, to avoid clashes with unpredictable results,’ said his spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Highways used by tens of thousands of Wagner troops marching on Moscow yesterday remained closed today.