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Putin Tries to Rewrite the Story of What Happened With Wagner Mutiny

During a mercenary warlord’s daylong mutiny against Russia’s military, President Vladimir V. Putin appeared just once, vowing “decisive actions” to take on “a betrayal of our people.”

After the five-minute address, Mr. Putin was out of sight again, leaving Russians to wonder about their president’s absence amid the most dramatic challenge to his rule in 23 years.

But the Kremlin’s image machine shifted into action on Tuesday, with Mr. Putin suddenly making televised speeches — an attempt to rewrite the story about what happened and assure the Russian public that he is still pulling the levers of power, whether people can see him or not.

After an angry address to the nation, delivered at about 10 p.m. Moscow time on Monday, Mr. Putin met with his Security Council. Seated nearby — but one seat removed, so not too close — was Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whose feud with the Wagner mercenary boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, led to the mutiny and a march on Moscow.

Mr. Prigozhin had for months excoriated Mr. Shoigu and Russia’s top general, Valery V. Gerasimov, for their handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, accusing them of cowardice, corruption and incompetence. Mr. Prigozhin has also insisted that his rebellion was only about them, and not Mr. Putin.

That Mr. Shoigu was at Mr. Putin’s side at the Security Council meeting showed that he remains enough in the president’s favor to be seen as a close counselor. Mr. Shoigu still has many critics, especially among influential pro-war bloggers, and whether he will ultimately keep his job is an open question.

Projecting TRIUMPH

With a red carpet laid down towering steps and dozens of soldiers arrayed in front of him, Mr. Putin on Tuesday thanked the military for having “essentially stopped a civil war” in remarks broadcast on state media.

The speech finally showed Mr. Putin outside of a nondescript room, and in an identifiable place: Cathedral Square in the Kremlin, the historic seat of power. Mr. Putin has often used the palatial buildings and rooms of the Kremlin, a fortified complex in the heart of Moscow, to project the image of a singular Russian leader, flanked by loyal officers and resembling the generations of czars who ruled from inside the Kremlin’s walls.

The triumphant imagery and heroic rhetoric stood in contrast to the weekend’s photos and videos in which it seemed no one was in charge: Wagner fighters breezing into a major city with armored vehicles, Mr. Prigozhin chatting with military officers in a command center he had just seized.

And a video feed of his speech offered a different perspective from the photographs. In the video, Mr. Putin, who since the pandemic has often kept ministers, aides and world leaders at a physical distance, stood on a stage dozens of feet away from the soldiers he addressed.

Portraying Control

Mr. Putin also spoke to Russian service members inside the Kremlin, combining the images of a modern president sitting workmanlike at his desk with the opulence and distance of Imperial Russia. A statue of Peter the Great, the 18th-century czar who Mr. Putin compared himself to last summer, stood behind him.

In his remarks, Mr. Putin again thanked the soldiers, saying their actions averted “complete chaos and civil war.” His emphasis on loyalty emphasized that fealty to the state — with Mr. Putin, always near Russian flags, being its dominant and most visible representation — was the only way to avoid catastrophe.

The message was in line with years of imagery and language from Mr. Putin, who has for decades styled himself the protector of stability.

He also said that Wagner was entirely financed through the state. In doing so, he essentially asserted that the mercenary force was always just a tool of the Kremlin and never beyond his control, despite the fact that Mr. Prigozhin’s fighters took over a major city in hours and reached within 125 miles of Moscow.

And Mr. Putin tried to present a portrait of broader success on the battlefield, returning to the talking points of Russian state media before Mr. Prigozhin’s armed rebellion. He claimed that Ukraine’s counteroffensive was failing badly, and that Kyiv had lost dozens of tanks and more than 100 armored vehicles over the last seven days.

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Mohammad SHiblu

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