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Prigozhin says he's sorry Wagner mercenaries shot down Russian aircraft, but the military might not forgive them for killing its service members

Jake Epstein   

Prigozhin says he's sorry Wagner mercenaries shot down Russian aircraft, but the military might not forgive them for killing its service members
  • Wagner fighters downed several Russian military aircraft during their short-lived rebellion.
  • Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Monday that he regretted the engagements, which reportedly left pilots dead.

Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has expressed regret for the downing of several Russian military aircraft during his revolt, but Moscow's troops may not be ready to forgive the mercenary leader for Wagner's mutiny anytime soon.

In his first public statement since calling off what turned out to be rather short-lived rebellion, Prigozhin expressed remorse on Monday that his fighters shot down several Russian aircraft, which killed an unconfirmed number of airmen. He said, however, that he was given no choice. He did not specifically apologize for carrying out the mutiny.

"We regret that we had to hit air assets, but those assets were dropping bombs and launching missile strikes," Prigozhin said in a roughly 11-minute audio message posted to Telegram, adding that Wagner simply wanted to "demonstrate our protest, not to overthrow the government."

During Wagner's revolt, which only lasted about a day, Wagner forces shot down a total of six Russian military transport, attack, and electronic warfare helicopters and one larger aircraft, identified as a Il-22M airborne command post. Wagner fighters also captured a Russian infantry mobility vehicle and a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle.

War experts at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, suggested that the fallout from the mutiny has split Russian ultranationalists into two camps: those who want more scrutiny on how Wagner fighters managed to seamlessly capture the southern city of Rostov-on-Don before pressing ahead toward Moscow and those who simply want to move on from the incident.

Prigozhin has enjoyed considerable support in Russia's ultranationalist pro-war information space throughout the war in Ukraine, but last weekend's rebellion raised questions over how far support would go.

In a Sunday analysis, ISW experts wrote that various Russian milbloggers and former officials in that ultranationalist space took varying stances on whether or not the Wagner mercenaries should be forgiven for their actions, if Prigozhin bore sole responsibility for the chaos, and how fit military leadership actually was to address the security problem.

"A prominent milblogger asked how Russian authorities will punish those involved in the deaths of Russian servicemen, indicating that clemency for the Wagner fighters that participated in the rebellion may become a longstanding grievance for elements of the Russian military and the ultranationalist community," the analysis said.

It is unclear exactly how the relationship between Wagner and Russia's regular military will be tested as a result of the mutiny and downing of the aircraft. Despite fighting alongside each other in Ukraine, the two factions have been at odds and sometimes even clashed on the battlefield, and it was the worsening tensions between Wagner and the defense ministry that appear to have led Prigozhin to launch an armed rebellion in the first place.

On Friday, Prigozhin accused Russia's defense ministry of carrying out a deadly strike on his mercenaries, which Moscow firmly denied. But Prigozhin seized the opportunity to slam the defense ministry as "evil" and said it "must be stopped," openly encouraging his mercenaries to take up arms against military leadership.

Quickly and without any resistance, Wagner fighters captured Rostov-on-Don before making their way toward Moscow. But as the capital city prepared for bloodshed, Prigozhin called off the impending assault after the Kremlin cut a deal that saw the mercenary boss shipped off to exile in Belarus.

Ukraine seized on the chaos to point out how Russia created its own domestic problems. The country's defense ministry wrote Saturday on Twitter that "russian soldiers must leave Ukraine and go save their homes from the war that the kremlin has unleashed within russia. The enemies of russian soldiers and the russian people are not in Ukraine. They are in moscow."

Western officials, meanwhile, said the armed rebellion highlighted a challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin's grip on power and exposed serious rifts in Moscow's authority.

"Sixteen months ago Russian forces were on the doorstep of Kyiv in Ukraine thinking they'd take the city in a matter of days, thinking they would erase Ukraine from the map as an independent country," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News on Sunday. "Now, over this weekend, they've had to defend Moscow, Russia's capital, against mercenaries of Putin's own making."

"It was a direct challenge to Putin's authority," Blinken continued. "So this raises profound questions. It shows real cracks. We can't speculate or know exactly where that's going to go. We do know that Putin has a lot more to answer for in the weeks and months ahead."

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