Russian President Vladimir Putin received mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin at the Kremlin days after the commander led a short-lived uprising, a senior government spokesman said Monday, the latest twist in a baffling episode that has raised questions about the power and influence of both men. .
The three-hour meeting took place on June 29 and also involved commanders from Prigozhin’s Wagner Group military contractor, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Putin gave an assessment of Wagner’s actions on the battlefield in Ukraine – where the mercenaries have fought alongside Russian troops – and of the uprising itself. According to Peskov, the Wagner troops pledged loyalty to Putin.
The confirmation that Putin met face-to-face with Prigozhin, who led troops on a march on Moscow last month to demand a change of defense minister, was extraordinary. Although the Russian leader branded Prigozhin a traitor as the uprising unfolded and vowed harsh punishments, the criminal case against the mercenary chief was later dropped.
Its ultimate fate remains unclear, especially as Monday’s announcement shows much behind-closed-door negotiations. On the day of the meeting between Putin and Prigozhin, Peskov told reporters that he had no information about the whereabouts of the mercenary leader.
Monday’s announcement came as Russia’s defense ministry released a video featuring military chief General Valery Gerasimov – who was one of the targets of Prigozhin’s uprising. It was the first time Gerasimov had been seen since the uprising.
The twin updates seemed like yet another attempt by the Kremlin to show that it is in control after a turbulent period.
But Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, predicted some observers would be stunned by the turn of events.
“If you look at it from the point of view of the Russian elite, it’s ridiculous,” she told The Associated Press. “It’s just so unbelievable and just so shocking.”
What made the meeting even more unusual was that until recently Putin had denied any connection between the state and Prigozhin’s armed forces. Mercenaries are illegal in Russia, but Wagner forces fought for Russian interests around the world and played a vital role in the capture of Bakhmut in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war.
But throughout the war, Prigozhin criticized decisions made by Russia’s top military leaders, leading to tensions with the Kremlin that culminated in the June 24 mutiny.
The uprising seriously weakened Putin’s authority, even though Prigozhin claimed that the uprising was not aimed at the president, but at ousting defense ministers Sergei Shoigu and Gerasimov. It ended his mutiny after a deal was made for Prigozhin to go to Belarus.
Days after the uprising, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that Prigozhin was in Belarus. But last week the president said the mercenary chief was in Russia while his troops remained in their camps.
Peskov said that at the June 29 meeting, Putin gave an “assessment” of Wagner’s actions on the battlefield in Ukraine and “of the events of June 24”. The president also listened to the commanders’ explanations and offered them options for further employment and use in the battle, the Kremlin spokesman said.
“The commanders themselves presented their version of what happened. They underlined that they are staunch supporters and soldiers of the head of state and commander-in-chief, and also said that they are ready to continue fighting for their homeland,” Peskov said.
A total of 35 people took part in the meeting, Peskov said.
A NATO summit later this week in Lithuania will look at how to step up pressure on Moscow after 16 months of war.
In southern Ukraine, a Russian airstrike on a school killed four adults as people gathered to receive humanitarian aid, the governor of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region said Monday, labeling the attack “a war crime.”
Three women and a man, all in their 40s, were killed in the strike in the city of Orikhiv on Sunday, Governor Yuriy Malashko said.
A guided aerial bomb caused an explosion at the school, Malashko said, without providing evidence. Eleven other people were injured in the attack, he said.
In all, Russia fired on 10 settlements in the province over the course of a day, he said.
Moscow denies targeting civilian locations. Russia has been accused of doing this and other war crimes numerous times since its February 2022 invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abduction of children from Ukraine.
Investigations are also ongoing in Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The International Center for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression Against Ukraine, located in The Hague, is assisting with those investigations.
Zaporizhzhia province is home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, seized by Russian forces early in the war, and is one of four regions of Ukraine illegally annexed by Putin last year. Retaking the province is one of the goals of a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Russian airstrikes continued across Ukraine between Sunday and Monday, according to a summary from the Ukrainian presidential office.
In the Donetsk region in the east, the Russians used aircraft, missile systems and heavy artillery to shell residential areas of 6 towns and villages, wounding one person, the agency reported.
The Russian army attacked residential areas of Kherson, the regional capital of the province of the same name. A 66-year-old woman was injured, the presidential office said.