Putin says he offered Wagner mercenaries the option to keep operating as a single unit

AP , Friday 14 Jul 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he offered mercenaries from the Wagner private military company the option of continuing to serve as a single unit under the same officer when he met with them five days after the group's abortive revolt last month that posed the most serious threat to his 23-year rule amid the war in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin answers journalists questions about the grain deal in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, July 13, 2023. AP


In remarks to the business daily Kommersant published Friday, Putin described a Kremlin event attended by 35 Wagner commanders, including the group’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, on June 29. He said that he talked to them about their actions in Ukraine, their mutiny — which he denounced as an act of treason in a televised address to the nation — and offered them various alternatives for future service.

Putin told Kommersant that one option would see Wagner keep serving under the same commander who goes by the call name Gray Hair, a man who has led the military company's operations in Ukraine for the past 16 months.

“All of them could have gathered in one place and continued to serve,” Putin told the newspaper, “And nothing would have changed for them. They would have been led by the same person who had been their real commander all along.”

Putin said that many Wagner commanders nodded in approval when he made his proposal, but Prigozhin, who was sitting in front and didn't see their reaction, quickly rejected the idea, responding that “the boys won’t agree with such a decision.”

Putin didn't mention where and in what numbers Wagner could be deployed, or say what proposal Wagner commanders eventually accepted, if any.

The Russian president has previously said that Wagner troops had to choose whether to sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry, move to neighboring Belarus or retire from service.

Putin's remarks came in a quick interview with a Kommersant reporter who has chronicled Putin's activities since his ascent to power and has special access to the president. His comments could be part of efforts to denigrate Prigozhin while trying to maintain control over Wagner mercenaries and secure their loyalty.

The Russian president has previously said that Prigozhin's company has received billions of dollars from state coffers, and said that investigators would look at whether any of the funds had been stolen, a warning to Prigozhin that he could face financial crime charges.

State-controlled media have posted videos and photos of Prigozhin’s opulent mansion in Russia’s second-largest city that showed stacks of cash, gold bars and fake passports. The images appeared to be part of the authorities’ smear campaign against the Wagner chief, who has postured as an enemy of corrupt elites even though he has owed his wealth to Putin.

Putin also noted that Wagner has operated without legal basis.

“There is no law on private military organizations. It simply doesn’t exist,” he told Kommersant, adding that the government and the parliament have yet to discuss the issue of private military contractors.

During the revolt that lasted less than 24 hours on June 23 and 24, Prigozhin’s mercenaries quickly swept through the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and captured the military headquarters there without firing a shot, before driving to within about 200 kilometers (125 miles) of Moscow. Prigozhin described the move as a “march of justice” to oust Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who demanded that Wagner sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1.

The mutiny faced little resistance and fighters downed at least six military helicopters and a command post aircraft, killing at least 10 airmen. Prigozhin called his mercenaries back to their camps after striking a deal to end the rebellion in exchange for an amnesty for him and his mercenaries, and permission to move to Belarus.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who brokered the deal that ended the mutiny, has said that Prigozhin was in Russia while Wagner’s troops were in their field camps. He didn't specify the location of the camps, but Prigozhin’s mercenaries fought alongside Russian forces in eastern Ukraine before their revolt and also have bases on Russian territory.

Asked if Prigozhin and his mercenaries would eventually move to Belarus, Lukashenko said it would depend on the decisions of the Wagner chief and the Russian government.

While the fate of Prigozhin and the terms of the agreement remain cloudy, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday that Wagner was completing the handover of its weapons to the Russian military.

Their disarming of Wagner reflects efforts by Russian authorities to defuse the threat they posed, and also appears to herald an end to the mercenary group’s operations on the battlefield in Ukraine, where Kyiv’s forces are engaged in a counteroffensive.

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