BY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he offered the Wagner private military company the option of continuing to serve as a single unit under their same commander after their short-lived rebellion, while some of the mercenaries were shown Friday in Belarus, possibly heralding the group’s relocation there.
Putin’s comments appeared to reflect his efforts to secure the loyalty of Wagner mercenaries, some of the most capable Russian forces in Ukraine, after the group’s brief revolt last month that posed the most serious threat to his 23-year rule.
The fate of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin remains unclear since the June 23-24 armed rebellion and new cracks have appeared in the Russian military as the war grinds through its 17th month and Ukraine presses a counteroffensive against the invading forces.
In remarks published Friday in the business daily Kommersant, Putin for the first time described a Kremlin event attended by 35 Wagner commanders, including Prigozhin, on June 29, five days after the rebellion. He said he praised their efforts in Ukraine, deplored their involvement in the mutiny — which he previously denounced as an act of treason — and offered them alternatives for future service.
Putin told Kommersant that one option would see Wagner keep the same commander who goes by the call sign “Gray Hair” and has led the private army in Ukraine for 16 months. The commander, Andrei 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.
“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 many Wagner troops nodded in approval at the proposal, but Prigozhin, who was sitting in front and didn’t see their reaction, quickly rejected it, responding that “the boys won’t agree with such a decision.”
Putin didn’t mention where and in what numbers Wagner could be deployed under his offer, or say what proposal the forces eventually accepted, if any. He said nothing about Prigozhin’s role.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to elaborate on Wagner’s future while speaking with reporters Friday.
Putin has previously said Wagner troops had to choose whether to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry, move to neighboring Belarus or retire from service.
Speaking to Kommersant, Putin emphasized that “rank-and-file soldiers of Wagner have fought honorably” in Ukraine, adding that “it’s a cause for regret that they were drawn” into the mutiny.
Putin’s remarks were to a Kommersant reporter who has special access to the president. They appeared to be part of efforts to denigrate Prigozhin while trying to maintain control over Wagner mercenaries and secure their loyalty.
Putin previously denied any links between the government and Wagner, and acknowledged after the mutiny that Prigozhin’s company has received billions of dollars from the state. He noted that investigators would probe whether any of the funds had been stolen, a warning to Prigozhin that he could face financial crimes.
State-controlled media have posted videos and photos of Prigozhin’s opulent mansion in St. Petersburg, including stacks of cash, gold bars and fake passports. The images appeared to be part of a smear campaign against the Wagner chief, who has portrayed himself as an enemy of corrupt elites even though he owes his wealth to Putin.
Putin also said 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.
In the revolt that lasted less than 24 hours, 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 called it a “march of justice” to oust 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 ordered his mercenaries back to their camps after striking a deal to end the rebellion in exchange for an amnesty for him and his men, and permission to move to Belarus.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who brokered the deal, has said Prigozhin was in Russia while Wagner’s troops were in their field camps. He didn’t specify the camps’ location but Prigozhin’s mercenaries fought alongside Russian forces in eastern Ukraine before their revolt and also have bases in Russia.
Lukashenko said his military could benefit from the private army’s combat experience, and Belarusian state TV broadcast video Friday of Wagner instructors training Belarusian territorial defense forces at a firing range near Asipovichy, where a camp offered to Wagner is located. A Belarusian messaging app channel alleged Prigozhin spent a night at the camp this week and posted a photo of him in a tent.
The Belarusian Defense Ministry didn’t say how many Wagner troops were in Belarus or specify if more will follow. Lukashenko has previously said it was up to Prigozhin and Moscow to decide on a move to Belarus. The Kremlin has refrained from comment.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said most mercenaries have remained in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, but added that “at this stage, we do not see Wagner forces participating in any significant capacity in support of combat operations in Ukraine.”
While the fate of Prigozhin remains cloudy, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday that Wagner was completing the handover of its weapons to the Russian military. That appeared to show attempts by Russian authorities to defuse the threat posed by the mercenaries and also seemed to herald an end to the group’s operations in Ukraine.
At the same time, new fissures have emerged in the military command. Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov, commander of the 58th army in the Zaporizhzhia region, a focal point in Ukraine’s counteroffensive, said he was dismissed after speaking out about problems faced by his troops in what he described as a “treacherous” stab in the back.
Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, refused to comment on Popov’s remarks, referring questions to the Defense Ministry that also hasn’t commented.
In the latest fighting, Ukraine said it shot down 16 Iranian-made Shahed drones launched overnight from Russia’s southern Krasnodar region. The presidential administration said at least four civilians were killed and 10 wounded since Thursday.
In southern Russia, three drones were destroyed late Thursday while approaching the city of Voronezh, regional Gov. Alexander Gusev said, adding there were no injuries or damage.
A drone also crashed and exploded in Kurchatov, where the Kursk nuclear power plant is located, without causing any damage to key facilities, said regional Gov. Roman Starovoit.
And three people were wounded when a car exploded in a residential area of Belgorod, near the Ukraine border, according to regional Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba responded to suggestions this week by British Defense Minister Ben Wallace that Ukraine could show more “gratitude” for Western military aid. The remark was an “unfortunate misunderstanding on the part of the British minister,” Kuleba said.
“No one has any reason to accuse us of any ingratitude. But the truth is that, sorry, we are at war,” he said. “When we win, then I will say, ‘thank you, the weapons were enough,’ but while the struggle continues, the weapons are not enough.”
Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed.
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