Just five days after staging a short-lived rebellion, the commanders of the mercenary chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and pledged allegiance to the government, a senior government spokesman said on Monday, the latest twist in a puzzling episode that has raised questions about the power and influence both men wield.
The three-hour meeting took place on June 29 and involved not only Prigozhin but also the commanders of his Wagner Group military contractor, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Putin made an assessment of Wagner’s actions on the battlefield in Ukraine, where mercenaries have fought alongside Russian troops, and the revolt itself.
“The commanders themselves gave their version of what happened. They stressed that they are staunch supporters and soldiers of the head of state and the commander-in-chief, and also said that they are ready to continue fighting for their homeland,” Peskov said.
Confirmation that Putin met face to face with Prigozhin, who led troops in a march to Moscow last month to demand a change in military leadership, was extraordinary. Although the Russian leader branded Prigozhin a traitor as the revolt unfolded and promised harsh punishment, the criminal case against the mercenary chief on charges of rebellion was later dropped.
Prigozhin has not commented on the Kremlin meeting, and his ultimate fate remains unclear, especially as Monday’s announcement shows much is being negotiated behind closed doors. He could still face prosecution for financial improprieties or other charges.
Monday’s announcement came as Russia’s Defense Ministry released a video featuring military chief General Valery Gerasimov, who was one of the targets of Prigozhin’s rebellion. It was the first time Gerasimov had been seen since the revolt.
In the video, Gerasimov is sitting at a table with his team, watching a video report from the chief of staff of Russia’s aerospace forces about a missile attack on Russian soil on Sunday. Gerasimov responds by calling for preemptive strikes against missile bases and improvements to missile defenses.
The twin updates appeared to be another attempt by the Kremlin to show it is in control after a turbulent period, and to reflect Putin’s delicate balance between condemning the biggest threat to his 23-year rule and the man behind it without alienating a popular figure whose troops won the greatest battlefield victory for Russia in the last year of the war.
Putin’s former speechwriter, Abbas Gallyamov, told The Associated Press that Putin recognizes Prigozhin’s patriotism and needs his forces on the front lines, while Prigozhin needs Putin to ensure his freedom from prosecution. The two are negotiating as allies, with Prigozhin escaping punishment, Gallyamov said.
Prigozhin “was victorious in this rebellion,” Gallyamov said in a Zoom interview from Tel Aviv. “He has proven to be the owner of the situation.”
Adding to the unusual nature of the meeting was the fact that, until very recently, Putin had denied any link between the state and Prigozhin’s forces. Mercenaries are illegal in Russia, but Wagner’s troops have fought for Russian interests around the world and played a key role in the capture of Bakhmut in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. Putin has confirmed that Prigozhin’s companies operated under government contracts.
Throughout the war, Prigozhin criticized decisions made by Russia’s top military commanders, which led to tensions with the Kremlin that culminated in the June 24 mutiny.
The rebellion severely weakened Putin’s authority, despite Prigozhin’s claim that the uprising was not directed against the president but against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gerasimov. Prigozhin called off his mutiny after a deal was brokered for him to go to Belarus.
Mark Galeotti, an author who runs the consultancy Mayak Intelligence, said the delicate dance with Prigozhin is “another compromise on Putin’s part and reflects his unwillingness to make harsh and ruthless personnel decisions.”
“He is ready to see the Ukrainians bombed by the dozens, but not to confront any of the figures in his own circle,” Galeotti wrote in The Spectator.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, predicted that some Russian observers would be stunned by the turn of events.
“When you look at it from the point of view of the Russian elite, it’s ridiculous,” he told the AP. “It’s so incredible and so shocking.”
Days after the revolt, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that Prigozhin was in Belarus. But last week the president said that eThe mercenary boss was in Russia while his troops remained in their camps.
Peskov said that during the June 29 meeting, Putin offered an “assessment” of Wagner’s actions on the battlefield in Ukraine and “of the events of June 24.” The president also “listened to the explanations of the commanders and offered them options for further employment and combat use,” the Kremlin spokesman said.
A total of 35 people participated in the meeting, Peskov said. Putin has given Prigozhin’s fighters options: fight as part of the Russian regular army, retire from service or join Prigozhin in Belarus.
A NATO summit later this week in Lithuania is discussing how to increase the pressure on Moscow after 16 months of war.
In other developments, a Russian airstrike on a school in southern Ukraine killed seven people as residents gathered to receive humanitarian aid, authorities said, with the governor of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region calling the attack “a crime.” of war”.
Governor Yuriy Malashko said a guided aerial bomb caused an explosion at a school in Orikhiv on Sunday, without providing any evidence.
In general, Russia fired on 10 settlements in the province in the course of a day, said.
Moscow denies that it targets civilian sites. Russia has been accused numerous times of doing so and of committing other war crimes since the start of its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin on war crimes charges, charging him with personal responsibility for the abductions of Ukrainian children.
Investigations are also underway in Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The International Center for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression against Ukraine, located in The Hague, is assisting with those investigations.
Ukraine has launched a counter-offensive to retake occupied territory, and on Monday Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar reported progress.
He said the country’s fighters had claimed 10.2 square kilometers (3.9 square miles) of territory in the south and four square kilometers (1.5 square miles) in the east last week. The gains, he said on Telegram, included the command heights of Bakhmut, where Prigozhin’s forces declared control of the city in May. None of the claims could be independently verified.