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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Putin met with Prigozhin days after rebellion, Kremlin says

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.

By Paul Sonne

President Vladimir Putin of Russia held a lengthy meeting with Yevgeny V. Prigozhin just five days after his Wagner private military company launched a brief mutiny, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Monday, noting that “further employment options” for the mercenary group were among the matters discussed.

It is the first known contact between the two men since Wagner’s uprising, which posed the most dramatic challenge to Putin’s authority in his more than two decades in power. But the Kremlin’s account of the meeting left a host of unanswered questions about the mercenary group’s future.

Putin invited 35 people to the three-hour meeting on June 29, including Prigozhin and all of Wagner’s top commanders, the Kremlin spokesperson said. He did not specify where the meeting took place. The details of any agreements reached at the meeting remain unclear, and Prigozhin hasn’t said anything about it since the failed mutiny.

“The only thing we can say is that the president gave his assessment of the company’s actions” during both the war in Ukraine and the uprising, Peskov said.

The commanders shared with Putin their version of events, he added. “Putin heard out the commanders and proposed further employment options and further combat options,” Peskov said. The fighters also pledged their loyalty to the Russian president.

“They emphasized that they are staunch supporters and soldiers of the head of state and commander in chief — and also said they are prepared to fight for the country going forward,” Peskov said.

That the Wagner officials were able to attend a peaceful meeting with the Russian leader and air their grievances, even after Putin denounced them as traitors on national television and vowed to crush their rebellion, demonstrates the power that Prigozhin has amassed as the leader of Wagner, whose forces led the campaign to seize Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine in one of Russia’s rare battlefield victories in recent months.

It also suggests that the Kremlin, at least for the time being, could see the mercenaries as a threat better kept within the tent than marginalized into an aggrieved and armed opposition.

But Putin is walking a perilous line, with any lenience shown to Prwigozhin and his commanders likely to be met with scorn by his own Defense Ministry, whose leadership had been the object of Wagner’s ire for months and was the named target of its short-lived rebellion.

On June 24, the Wagner mercenaries seized the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and an important Russian military headquarters there, before beginning a short-lived march on Moscow.

Prigozhin asserted that the mutiny was aimed not at toppling Putin or his government, but at removing the top leaders of the Russian military, Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery V. Gerasimov.

Nevertheless, Putin hit back hard, appearing in a national address to denounce the uprising as traitorous and warn against a descent into a new Russian civil war. Putin promised the harshest punishment for those who “consciously chosen the path of betrayal.”

But the harsh punishments didn’t come.

Hours later, the Kremlin announced a deal, apparently brokered by the autocratic Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, under which Prigozhin would stand down, avoid prosecution and depart Russia for Belarus. Wagner fighters who had participated in the mutiny would also go free and avoid punishment; those who didn’t participate would be given the chance to sign Russian military contracts.

The agreement prompted outrage among some Russian commentators, who were exasperated that the insurrectionist mercenaries were facing zero punishment, despite having shot down Russian aircraft, leaving an unspecified number of personnel dead.

The Kremlin has changed its story about Prigozhin’s whereabouts. On June 29, the day of the meeting between Putin and Prigozhin, the Kremlin spokesperson told reporters that he didn’t know where the mercenary boss was.

The following week, on July 6, Peskov said the Kremlin had neither the “ability nor the desire” to track Prigozhin’s movements.

The next day, the French newspaper Libération reported that Putin had met with Prigozhin and his commanders at the Kremlin to “negotiate the fate of his empire.”

On Monday, Peskov confirmed that the meeting with Putin had taken place. The Kremlin spokesperson added, “The details of it are unknown.”

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