Russian President Vladimir Putin said that five days after the Wagner group’s brief revolt he offered its mercenary soldiers the option to continue serving as a single unit under one commander.
Putin made the claim in an interview published Friday in the daily newspaper Kommersant. The Russian President described a June 29 event at the Kremlin attended by 35 Wagner commanders, including Yevgeny Prigozhin who led the two-day revolt on June 23 which Putin denounced to the Kommersant as an act of treason.
During the Kremlin meeting, according to Putin, he offered the Wagner mercenaries various alternatives for future service, one of which was to keep serving under a single commander who goes by the name “Gray Hair” and has led Wagner operations in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion 16 months ago.
“All of them could have gathered in one place and continued to serve,” Putin said. “And nothing would have changed for them. They would have been led by the same person who had been their real commander all along.”
According to Putin, many of the other Wagner commanders nodded approval but Prigozhin—who was sitting in front and couldn’t see most of his counterparts’ reaction—rejected the offer, saying that “the boys won’t agree with such a decision.”
Putin also asserted that Wagner has operated without legal basis, stating, “There is no law on private military organizations. It simply doesn’t exist.”
Putin has stated in the past that Wagner has received billions of dollars from state reserves, adding that authorities would investigate whether any of the funds had been stolen, an implication that Prigozhin could face criminal charges.
During the Wagner uprising in June, Prigozhin said his fighters “blockaded” the Russian town of Rostov on the Ukrainian front lines “without firing a single shot.” The revolt ended one day after it began when a deal was reportedly struck by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko that the mercenaries would receive immunity, and that charges brought against Prigozhin himself would be dropped once he turned his columns away from their subsequent march toward Moscow.
Before turning back, some 8,000 of Prigozhin’s troops had come within 125 kilometers of the capital city.
The deal also reportedly included a stipulation that Prigozhin leave Ukraine for Belarus, but last week Lukashenko said the Wagner chief was back in Russia—St. Petersburg, to be specific. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov responded to Lukashenko’s claim by saying the Russian government didn’t know where Prigozhin was.
Wagner’s aborted rebellion represented the biggest threat to Putin’s authority in his more than two decades in power.