Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he offered mercenaries from the Wagner private military company the option of continuing to serve as a single unit under the same officer when he met with them five days after the group`s abortive revolt last month that posed the most serious threat to his 23-year rule amid the war in Ukraine.
In remarks to the business daily Kommersant published Friday, Putin described a Kremlin event attended by 35 Wagner commanders, including the group`s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, on June 29. He said that he talked to them about their actions in Ukraine, their mutiny, which he denounced as an act of treason in a televised address to the nation, and offered them various alternatives for future service.
Putin told Kommersant that one option would see Wagner keep serving under the same commander who goes by the call name Gray Hair, a man who has led the military company`s operations in Ukraine for the past 16 months.
“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 that many Wagner commanders nodded when he made his proposal, but Prigozhin, who was sitting in front and didn`t see their reaction, quickly rejected the idea, responding that “the boys won`t agree with such a decision.”
Putin didn`t say what proposal Wagner commanders eventually accepted, if any.The Russian president has previously said that Wagner troops had to choose whether to sign contracts with the Russian Defence Ministry, move to neighbouring Belarus or retire from service.
Putin also noted that Wagner has operated without legal basis.
“There is no law on private military organisations. 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. During the revolt that lasted less than 24 hours on June 23 and 24, 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 kilometres of Moscow.
Prigozhin described the move as a “march of justice” to oust Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who demanded that Wagner sign contracts with the Defence 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 called his mercenaries back to their camps after striking a deal to end the rebellion in exchange for an amnesty for him and his mercenaries, and permission to move to Belarus.
While the fate of Prigozhin and the terms of the agreement remain cloudy, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday that Wagner was completing the handover of its weapons to the Russian military. Their disarming of Wagner reflects efforts by Russian authorities to defuse the threat they posed, and also appears to herald an end to the mercenary group`s operations on the battlefield in Ukraine, where Kyiv`s forces are engaged in a counteroffensive.
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