When President Vladimir V. Putin met with Russian media figures behind closed doors on Tuesday, he presented himself as a leader, delving into Yevgeny V. Prigozhin’s business contracts with the Russian Defense ministry.
He also portrayed himself as being fully engaged throughout the 24-hour uprising last weekend by Mr. Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner paramilitary group, according to the newspaper editor Konstantin Remchukov, who attended the meeting.
“Putin said he didn’t sleep for a minute during the rebellion,” Mr. Remchukov said in a phone interview from Moscow. In the rebellion’s aftermath, he said, Mr. Putin appeared focused on the economic motives guiding Mr. Prigozhin: “He’s deep in the numbers of the Prigozhin contracts, the money flows.”
The focus on Mr. Prigozhin’s financial dealings allowed Mr. Putin to cast the short-lived mutiny as a personal grievance over money, setting up the potential for broader fallout among the upper echelons.
The Russian leader was signaling that even though he allowed Mr. Prigozhin and his fighters to receive sanctuary in neighboring Belarus, the associates of the mercenary chieftain in government and elsewhere could still face consequences.
Several pro-war Russian blogs reported this week that the authorities were investigating military service members with ties to Mr. Prigozhin, but those reports could not be independently confirmed.
The problem for Mr. Putin is that Mr. Prigozhin has built a web of connections deep into Russia’s ruling elite, beginning when he ran high-end restaurants and catered banquets in St. Petersburg in the 1990s.
Mr. Putin himself hinted at the depth of Mr. Prigozhin’s ties to the government in his public remarks on Tuesday, saying Mr. Prigozhin, a catering magnate, had earned roughly $1 billion from military catering contracts in the past year, and that the government had spent another $1 billion to finance his mercenaries.
Mr. Remchukov said that Mr. Putin returned to that theme in the closed-door meeting Tuesday evening, and that it was evident Mr. Putin was “trying to learn the whole economic background” of Mr. Prigozhin’s financial arrangements with the government.
On Wednesday, Mr. Putin sought to show he was going back to business as usual. He flew to the southern Russian region of Dagestan to discuss domestic tourism, praising the expansion of the local brandy industry and, according to the Kremlin’s transcript, not mentioning the weekend’s uprising.
But back in Moscow, with the nature of Mr. Putin’s longer-term response to the rebellion a matter of guesswork, members of the Russian elite were still scrambling to demonstrate their loyalty and disavow past ties to Mr. Prigozhin.
“It’s a highly convoluted question” as to who should get punished for their ties to Mr. Prigozhin, said Oleg Matveychev, a member of the Russian Parliament and a longtime pro-Kremlin political consultant.
Those targeted, he said in a phone interview, would not be those who were only “pictured with Prigozhin somewhere,” but those who “actively covered for him, actively continue to do this, and actively work against the policy of the president.”
Mr. Matveychev acknowledged working with Mr. Prigozhin and his internet “troll farm” about a decade ago, but said he stopped the partnership after concluding, in his view, that Mr. Prigozhin was a “mentally unstable person.”
The question of who gets punished for Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion carries high stakes, especially because some of Mr. Prigozhin’s key allies and sympathizers are believed to be inside the military. Mr. Remchukov said there was intense speculation in Moscow about the fate of Sergei Surovikin, a senior general whom Mr. Prigozhin had praised publicly. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that American officials believe General Surovikin knew about the rebellion in advance.
“I think they’re going to ask why he was quiet” and didn’t speak up against Mr. Prigozhin before the rebellion, Mr. Remchukov said of General Surovikin. “Were there any interests, was there any connection?”On Wednesday, Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, called The Times’s report “speculations’’ but did not deny the reporting or express any support for the general, who has not been heard from since appearing in a video last Friday night pleading with the rebels to stand down.
But Mr. Prigozhin’s ties also extend well beyond the military. After a career spent in the shadows, Mr. Prigozhin turned himself into a public figure in the last year, casting himself as a tough-talking mercenary leader far more effective than the traditional military. He regularly castigated and belittled military leaders like Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister.
In the last year, Pro-Kremlin figures seeking to prove their patriotic bona fides rushed for Mr. Prigozhin’s bandwagon.
The son of Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, bragged that he had joined an artillery unit in Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner group and earned a medal “for courage.” The head of a party in Russia’s rubber-stamp Parliament, Sergei Mironov, posed with a sledgehammer decorated with the Wagner insignia — a pile of skulls, and a hand-drawn smiley face.
The sledgehammer last year became Mr. Prigozhin’s trademark after he endorsed its use in the gruesome execution of a Wagner fighter who had surrendered to Ukraine.
“Thank you to Yevgeny Prigozhin for the present,” Mr. Mironov wrote on Twitter in January. “This is a useful instrument.”
But by Tuesday, Mr. Mironov had refashioned himself into a bulwark against Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion. He called for an investigation into what he claimed was a “line of V.I.P.’s — officials and civil servants” flocking to leave the country from the private jet terminal of Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport during Wagner’s abbreviated march toward Moscow on Saturday.
“This is a fifth column!” he wrote on social media, without naming names. “Traitors to the Motherland!”
There was also the question of who had spoken up for Mr. Putin while the rebellion was ongoing, and who stayed silent. One Moscow the political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov published what he called an “oath rating” on the Telegram social network that cataloged, down to the minute, at what time on Saturday Russia’s more than 80 regional governors posted a message of support of Mr. Putin, if they did — and listed the 21 who posted no such messages at all.
Mr. Vinogradov said in an interview that it would be a mistake to draw serious conclusions from his rating, but Mr. Matveychev, the member of Parliament, said he found the list revealing.
“I had a glance and drew conclusions,” Mr. Matveychev said, “that a person is, let’s say, unreliable and might act differently next time.”
Mr. Matveychev insisted that the aborted rebellion was a positive for Russia because its failure “strengthens the image of the authorities” and acts as a “vaccine” against future rebellions. And Mr. Remchukov, the newspaper editor, said that despite his prediction on Sunday that Mr. Putin might not run for re-election next year because of the rebellion’s blow to his image, he has seen Moscow’s Kremlin-connected elite rally to Mr. Putin’s side as he seeks to telegraph strength.
“Putin is now totally focused on sending the message to the elites that ‘I can protect you,’” Mr. Remchukov said. “Now there will, I think, be some very energetic actions to show this, because his whole logic is to show that this was nothing but treason.”
But others saw Mr. Prigozhin’s challenge as a problem for Mr. Putin, especially as the war drags on and members of the elite look to blame each other for setbacks at the front.
“This is a signal that the system of governance is not handling the wartime stress well,” Mr. Vinogradov, the Moscow analyst, said. “Especially not in the last two months, when everyone was awaiting a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive and preparing to turn on one another — and even the lack of that success didn’t change this at all.”
For the Russian public, and the military rank and file, the aftermath of the rebellion is a moment of whiplash, with Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner force — which had scored Russia’s only recent battlefield success and been celebrated by pro-war bloggers and at times the state media — being recast as traitors.
Leonid Ivashov, a retired senior Russian general who has spoken out against the war but has remained in Russia, summarized the overarching question hanging over society and the military thus: “What is going on?”
“Many can’t understand what the government actually wants,” General Ivashov said in a phone interview. “The first question is: What is happening in the country and the army?”