In this file photo released by the Belarusian Defense Ministry on Thursday, July 20, 2023, soldiers of the Special Operations Forces and mercenary fighters from the Wagner private military company pose for a photo amid maneuvers at a firing range near the border city of Brest, Belarus. AP
In remarks released by the Kremlin on Friday, Putin told Andrei Troshev that his task is to “deal with forming volunteer units that could perform various combat tasks, primarily in the zone of the special military operation” — a term the Kremlin uses for its war in Ukraine.
Wagner fighters have had no significant role on the battlefield since the mercenary company withdrew after capturing the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle and then staged a brief insurrection when they marched toward Moscow.
After the aborted mutiny, speculation has been rife about the future of the mercenary group that was one of the most capable elements of Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Many observers expected it to be folded into the Defense Ministry, and Putin’s comments appeared to confirm that process was underway.
Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was also present at the meeting late Thursday, a sign that Wagner mercenaries will likely serve under the Defense Ministry’s command. Speaking in a conference call with reporters on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Troshev now works for the Defense Ministry and referred questions about Wagner's possible return to Ukraine to the military.
The meeting appeared to reflect the Kremlin’s plan to redeploy some Wagner mercenaries to the front line in Ukraine following their brief mutiny in June and the suspicious deaths of Prigozhin and the group's senior leadership in a plane crash Aug. 23. The private army that once counted tens of thousands of troops is a precious asset the Kremlin wants to exploit.
The June 23-24 rebellion aimed to oust the Russian Defense Ministry’s leadership that Prigozhin blamed for mishandling the war in Ukraine and trying to place Wagner under its control. His mercenaries took over Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and then rolled toward Moscow before abruptly halting the mutiny.
Putin denounced them as “traitors,” but the Kremlin quickly negotiated a deal ending the uprising in exchange for amnesty from prosecution. The mercenaries were offered a choice to retire from the service, move to Belarus or sign new contracts with the Defense Ministry.
Putin said in July that five days after the mutiny he had a meeting with 35 Wagner commanders, including Prigozhin, and suggested they keep serving under Troshev, who goes by the call sign “Gray Hair,” but Prigozhin refused the offer then.
Troshev, is a retired military officer who has played a leading role in Wagner since its creation in 2014 and faced European Union sanctions over his role in Syria as the group’s executive director.
Wagner mercenaries have played a key role in Moscow’s war in Ukraine, spearheading the capture of Bakhmut in May after months of fierce fighting. Kyiv’s troops are now seeking to reclaim it as part of their summer counteroffensive that has slowly recaptured some of its lands but now faces the prospect of wet and cold weather that could further delay progress.
The U.K. Defense Ministry said in its intelligence briefing on Friday that hundreds of former Wagner troops had likely begun to redeploy to Ukraine to fight for either the Russian military or pro-Russia private military companies.
Wagner veterans reportedly were concentrated around Bakhmut, where the British said their experience would be in demand because they are familiar with the front line and Ukrainian tactics after fighting there last winter.
In other developments:
The U.K. has announced new sanctions aimed at officials behind Russia's illegal annexation of territories in Ukraine and elections held there earlier this month by Moscow to try to legitimize their hold on the occupied regions.
Western countries denounced the elections in the four Ukrainian regions that Moscow annexed in 2022 — Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia — and on the Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014, as a violation of international law.
The new sanctions come on the eve of the first anniversary of Russia laying claim to the territory and will freeze assets and ban travel for officials in those regions and those behind the vote.
“Russia’s sham elections are a transparent, futile attempt to legitimize its illegal control of sovereign Ukrainian territory," British Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly said. “You can’t hold ‘elections’ in someone else’s country.”