Wagner mercenaries offered chance to serve in Russia, Putin says

Putin claims Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin rejected offer of fighters serving in Russia after mutiny.

A fighter of Wagner private mercenary group is seen atop of an armoured vehicle in a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer
A Wagner mercenary in an armoured vehicle in a street near the headquarters of Russia's Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, during their mutiny against Moscow's military leadership on June 24, 2023 [File: Stringer/Reuters]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he offered Wagner mercenaries the opportunity to continue serving together in Russia after their mutiny last month against Moscow’s military leadership.

Interviewed by the Russian daily Kommersant on Thursday, Putin said his offer was one of several he made at a meeting with approximately three dozen Wagner fighters and their founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, five days after Wagner forces staged a short-lived revolt last month.

Under Putin’s offer, the mercenary force could remain serving under their current commander, who the newspaper identified only by his call sign of “Grey Hair”.

Kommersant said Putin spoke of meeting 35 Wagner fighters and Prigozhin in the Kremlin and offering them options for the future, including remaining under their commander of 16 months.

“All of them could have gathered in one place and continued their service,” Kommersant quoted Putin as saying.

“And nothing would have changed. They would have been led by the same person who had been their real commander all that time.”

As Putin is the army’s commander-in-chief, he seemed to be implying that the mercenary force would remain within the Russian military, although he did not say that explicitly.

“Many of them nodded when I said this,” Kommersant quoted Putin as saying.

However, Prigozhin disagreed, it reported.

“Prigozhin … said after listening: ‘No, the boys won’t agree with such a decision,'” Kommersant quoted Putin as saying.

Putin also indirectly admitted to Kommersant that the Russian leadership had been relying on a private military organisation that operated beyond the scope of Russian law.

He told the newspaper there was no possibility of Wagner remaining in its current form.

“Wagner does not exist,” Putin told Kommersant. “There is no law on private military organisations. It just doesn’t exist.”

Wagner fighters played a key role in the Russian army’s advance into eastern Ukraine and were the driving force in the capture of the city of Bakhmut in May, after months of battles.

But Prigozhin constantly accused Russia’s military chiefs of failing to back his men and of even cutting his allocation of artillery shells and other munitions at key times in the battle for Bakhmut.

After months of verbal attacks on the military hierarchy, Wagner fighters crossed from Ukraine into Russia and took control of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don on June 24 as other units made a dash towards Moscow.

But the Wagner mutiny ended as abruptly as it started, when Prigozhin, only 24 hours into the mutiny, announced that his forces had halted their advance after being offered a deal under which they could resettle in Belarus, and criminal charges against them would not be pursued.

Prigozhin’s whereabouts are not currently known and, by last week, his forces had yet to take up the offer of decamping to Belarus.

On Wednesday, Russia’s defence ministry said Wagner was completing its handover of heavy weapons to Russia’s regular armed forces while the Pentagon said the mercenary force was not participating in military operations in Ukraine in any significant way.

“At this stage, we do not see Wagner forces participating in any significant capacity in support of combat operations in Ukraine,” Pentagon spokesperson Air Force Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said on Thursday.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a think tank based in Washington, DC, said on Thursday that geolocated video footage appeared to show Wagner forces travelling in a convoy on Russia’s M4 motorway in the Voronezh region in what appeared to be a redeployment likely from field camps in the rear of Russian-occupied Ukraine.

A Russian military blogger claimed that the footage featured the convoy being escorted by Russian police and included buses with Belarusian licence plates, “possibly indicating the convoy’s destination”, the ISW said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies