The head of the Wagner private military group has denied trying to overthrow the Russian government but redoubled his criticism of the country’s defence establishment in his first public comments since Saturday’s abortive march on Moscow.

In an 11-minute voice recording posted on Telegram on Monday, Yevgeny Prigozhin said his goal had been to protest against a recent decision to disband the militia and demonstrate the weakness of Russia’s domestic defences.

“We didn’t have the goal of toppling the existing regime, which is lawfully elected, as we have said many times,” said Prigozhin, who did not refer to President Vladimir Putin by name.

Instead, he wanted to “prevent the destruction” of Wagner and to hold to account those who “with their unprofessional actions, made a huge amount of mistakes” during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

His forces’ armed convoy came close to Moscow on Saturday evening in what Prigozhin termed a “march for justice” but abruptly turned back, ending the rebellion.

“Our decision to turn around came from two important factors,” he added. “The first was that we did not want to spill Russian blood. The second, we were marching to demonstrate our protest, not to unseat the government.”

Until the message on Monday afternoon, Prigozhin had not been seen or heard from since he drove away from the southern army headquarters in Rostov-on-Don that his Wagner militia briefly took over on Saturday. The Kremlin said at the weekend that the case against him “will be ended” and claimed Prigozhin had agreed to leave for Belarus. However, earlier on Monday state media reported that he still faced prosecution.

The warlord has railed against the leadership of the regular Russian army and against defence minister Sergei Shoigu for many months, accusing them of killing tens of thousands of Russian soldiers through corruption and poor planning.

The long-running feud came to a head in June after laws were passed to make all irregular forces — of which Wagner is the largest and most prominent — pledge allegiance to the defence ministry and subsume them into its structure.

Prigozhin said Wagner had been told it was being disbanded by July 1. But commanders and fighters, he claimed, were unwilling to cross over to the regular army, considering its poor performance and the risk this posed to their own survival.

Yet Wagner was willing to proceed as ordered, Prigozhin claimed, and was packing up its military equipment last week, planning to head to Rostov-on-Don in convoy on June 30 to hand everything over to the army.

Then on Friday, he claimed, Wagner base camps were hit with air strikes by the Russian military, killing over two dozen of its troops. A similar account was denied by the defence ministry on Friday evening.

“This was a trigger for us to decide to move out immediately,” Prigozhin said.

In his voice note on Monday, he also bragged about Wagner’s successes.

He said that if the army had had the same level of training and morale as Wagner, the invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24 last year, “may have taken no more than a day”.

He said that his rapid progress during the weekend’s march — though it occurred within his own country — illustrated this fact.

“We demonstrated the level of organisation that the Russian army should have,” Prigozhin said, claiming that his forces crossed a total of 780km and stopped just 200km short of Moscow.

“It was a masterclass in how February 24 2022 should’ve looked.”

He said the militia not only managed to seize Rostov-on-Don, a major southern city and military HQ, but also managed to disarm the military obstacles placed in its way, and take over all the bases and airfields that lay in its path.

Residents, moreover, had been happy to see Wagner pass, Prigozhin claimed. “Civilians met us with Russian and Wagner flags . . . Many of them continue to write words of support, and others are disappointed that we stopped.”

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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