WAR IN EUROPE
Putin met Wagner’s Prigozhin after revolt that shook Russia
Vladimir Putin met Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin days after the failed uprising that he’d denounced as treason, adding another twist to the unprecedented mutiny that threatened the Russian president’s nearly quarter-century rule.
Putin held talks with Prigozhin and top Wagner commanders at the Kremlin for nearly three hours on June 29, the president’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Monday, according to Russian news services. The commanders pledged loyalty to Putin as head of state and commander-in-chief and declared their readiness to continue fighting for Russia, Peskov said.
The meeting raises fresh questions about the June 24 revolt that Putin said brought Russia to the edge of civil war, as well as the deal Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko brokered to end it. While Putin said he’d let Prigozhin go to Belarus under the agreement, the Wagner founder shows little sign he plans to leave Russia and his presence at the Kremlin suggested he felt confident about his security.
Wagner’s leadership also appears intact despite a Defense Ministry deadline of July 1 for its fighters either to sign contracts with the Russian military, go home or leave for Belarus. The ministry hasn’t said how many Wagner mercenaries have signed up.
Putin “listened to the explanations of the commanders” about the mutiny and “gave his assessment,” Peskov said, according to the Interfax news service. Some 35 Wagner leaders were present and the president offered them further opportunities for employment and involvement in combat operations, he said.
|Timeline of Key Events|
|Late June 23: Prigozhin threatens “march of justice” to oust Defense Ministry chiefs|
|June 24: Wagner forces approach Moscow before Prigozhin halts mutiny|
|June 27: Belarus President Lukashenko says Prigozhin arrived in his country|
|July 6: Lukashenko says Prigozhin is back in Russia|
|July 10: Kremlin discloses Putin and Prigozhin held meeting June 29|
While the Kremlin cast the meeting as an expression of Wagner’s loyalty to Putin, it contrasted sharply with his rhetoric during the mutiny when he said those involved had “betrayed Russia and will answer for it.”
Russian state media has also waged a relentless campaign of attacks on Prigozhin, portraying him as corrupt and reversing earlier praise of Wagner’s effectiveness on the battlefield in Ukraine.
“Prigozhin and his group had a major role, both inside and outside the country, and it’s quite hard to just disband one of the most effective fighting forces, so that’s why these talks with its leadership took place,” said Yevgeny Minchenko, a Moscow-based political consultant. “This is an asset in which Russia invested a lot in recent years.”
Two days before meeting with Prigozhin and Wagner chiefs, Putin told 2,500 Russian troops assembled at the Kremlin that the country had averted “civil war.” He later said some $3.25 billion had been paid from the state budget in the past year to finance Wagner’s military operations in Ukraine and pay Prigozhin’s catering company for supplying food to the army.
Prigozhin hasn’t been seen publicly since calling off the 24-hour revolt as his forces came to within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of Moscow, meeting little resistance from army units. He repeatedly accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov of failures over the conduct of the war in Ukraine and claimed they were seeking to “destroy” Wagner.
While the Kremlin has since sought to restore Putin’s authority by showing him meeting security officials and being cheered by ordinary Russians at public events, the US, Europe and China have been left puzzling over the political fallout from the rebellion that shattered his image as Russia’s invincible leader.
The Kremlin’s disclosure of the meeting came hours after Gerasimov was shown on state television for the first time since the abortive mutiny that had aimed at ousting him and Shoigu. He was shown in a brief video receiving battlefield reports from officials.
Putin appointed Gerasimov as overall head of Russia’s invasion force in January in place of General Sergei Surovikin, who hasn’t been seen in public since the Wagner rebellion ended.
Surovikin, who was praised by Prigozhin, has been quizzed by investigators over his links to the Wagner chief, according to a person with knowledge of the matter, as the security services seek to establish whether elements in the military may have known in advance about the mutiny.DM