Russian President Vladimir Putin offered Wagner mercenaries the opportunity to keep fighting at a meeting just days after their failed mutiny but suggested Yevgeny Prigozhin be moved aside in favour of a different commander, the Kommersant newspaper said.
Putin initially said he would crush the June 23-24 mutiny, comparing it to the wartime turmoil that ushered in the revolutions of 1917, but hours later a deal was clinched to allow Prigozhin and some of his fighters to go to Belarus.
Mystery surrounds the fate of that deal as well as the future of Wagner, one of the world’s most battle-hardened mercenary forces, and Prigozhin, a former convict who rose to become known as “Putin’s chef” and Russia’s most powerful mercenary.
The Kremlin said on Monday that Putin had held talks with Wagner commanders and Prigozhin at a meeting on June 29, five days after the mutiny. The mercenaries, the Kremlin said, reaffirmed their loyalty to Putin.
But Kommersant, one of Russia’s top newspapers, published Putin’s remarks to its most experienced Kremlin correspondent, Andrei Kolesnikov, which suggested the future of Prigozhin and Wagner was in doubt.
“But Wagner does not exist,” Putin told Kommersant when asked if it would be preserved as a fighting unit. “There is no law on private military organisations. It just doesn’t exist.”
Asked about Putin’s remark, the Kremlin said on Friday that there was no legal entity named Wagner and the legal status of such companies was a complicated one which needed consideration.
Putin then related details about the June 29 Kremlin meeting with 35 Wagner commanders at which he suggested several options for them to continue fighting, including that a senior Wagner figure known by his nom de guerre “Sedoi” – or “grey hair” – take over command.
“Sedoi” is the nom de guerre of Andrei Troshev, a senior Wagner commander, according to European Union sanctions documents, French official documents, sources with knowledge of the matter and Russian media reports.
A highly decorated veteran of Russia’s wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, Troshev is from St Petersburg, Putin’s home town, and has been pictured with the president.
“All of them could have gathered in one place and continued to serve,” Kommersant quoted Putin as saying. “And nothing would have changed for them. They would have been led by the same person who had been their real commander all that time.”
Putin said that many of the commanders had nodded their head at his suggestion but Prigozhin, who was sitting at the front, did not see this, Kommersant said.
“‘No, the boys won’t agree with such a decision’,” Putin quoted Prigozhin as saying.
The remarks do not appear in an official Kremlin transcript of comments Putin made to Kolesnikov and a state television reporter on Thursday. Prigozhin did not reply to a request for comment. Prigozhin has not been seen in public since leaving the southern Russian city of Rostov on June 24.
US President Joe Biden on Thursday said the United States was unsure where Prigozhin was but joked that the mercenary chief could be poisoned.
“If I were he, I’d be careful what I ate. I’d be keeping my eye on my menu,” Biden said, according to White House transcript. “But all kidding aside…I don’t think any of us know for sure what the future of Prigozhin is in Russia.”
Wagner helped Russia annex Crimea in 2014, fought Islamic State militants in Syria, operated in Central African Republic and Mali and took the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut for Russia earlier this year with considerable losses on both sides.
For months before the mutiny, Prigozhin had been openly insulting Putin’s most senior military men, using a variety of crude expletives and prison slang. He has insisted his actions on June 23-24 were aimed only at settling scores with the top military brass who he said were losing the Ukraine war for Russia. He said he was not challenging Putin or the Russian state.
- A Reuters report