Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin days after the failed uprising that he had denounced as treason, the Kremlin said.
The extraordinary meeting adds another twist to the saga of the Wagner mutiny that spiraled into the most serious threat to Putin’s nearly quarter-century rule. The Kremlin leader had threatened “harsh” punishment over the June 24 rebellion, saying Wagner’s leaders “betrayed their country and their people” and brought Russia to the edge of civil war.
Putin met Prigozhin and top Wagner commanders at the Kremlin for nearly three hours of talks 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.
Putin “listened to the explanations of the commanders” about the mutiny and “gave his assessment,” the Interfax news service cited Peskov as saying. In all, 35 people were invited to the meeting and the president offered Wagner’s leaders further opportunities for employment and involvement in combat operations, it reported.
Prigozhin’s forces came to within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of Moscow virtually unopposed during the uprising before he called off the 24-hour revolt under a deal brokered by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Putin agreed to allow the Wagner founder and his men to move to Belarus and to drop criminal cases of armed mutiny against them. Russian authorities confirmed the death of several air force pilots shot down by Wagner forces during the rebellion.
Two days before his 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 told a group of soldiers that the state budget had paid out some $3.25 billion in the past year to finance Wagner’s military operations in Ukraine and pay Prigozhin’s catering company for supplying food to the army.
While the Kremlin sought to restore Putin’s authority by showing him meeting security officials and being cheered by ordinary Russians at public events, the U.S., Europe and China have been left puzzling over the political fallout from the rebellion that shattered his image as Russia’s invincible leader.
Russian state media have also been waging relentless attacks on Prigozhin, portraying him as corrupt and casting doubt on Wagner’s effectiveness on the battlefield in Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s disclosure of the meeting came hours after Russia’s top military commander was shown on state television for the first time since the abortive mutiny that had aimed at ousting him. Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who’s in charge of Russia’s war operations in Ukraine, was shown in a brief video receiving battlefield reports from officials.
Putin appointed Gerasimov as overall commander 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. Prigozhin had sought to overthrow Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, blaming them for multiple failures during the war and accusing them of seeking to destroy his mercenary group.
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