Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered one of the top commanders of the Wagner mercenary group to take command of “volunteer units” fighting in Ukraine, a sign that the Kremlin wants to continue the mercenaries’ engagement after the death of their chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
In a statement released by the Kremlin on Friday, President Putin told new leader Andrei Troshev that his task “is to form volunteer units that can engage in various combat tasks, especially in the area of special military operation” – terminology this is what official Moscow uses for its war in Ukraine.
Wagner’s fighters haven’t played a major role on the battlefield since the mercenary group took control of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war and then retreated toward Moscow during a brief rebellion. .
After the failure of the rebellion at the end of June, there was much speculation about the future of the mercenary group, which rose to become one of the most specialized elements of the Russian forces engaged in the war in Ukraine. Many observers expect this group to be included within the Ministry of Justice, and President Putin’s comments seem to confirm that such a process is taking place.
Mr Troshev is a retired military officer who played a leading role in Wagner since the group was founded in 2014. He is on the European Union’s sanctions list for his role in Syria as the group’s chief executive.
Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was present at Mr Putin’s meeting with Mr Troshev, a sign that Wagner’s mercenaries still serve under the command of the Defense Ministry. At a press conference with reporters on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Mr. Troshev now works for the Justice Ministry and referred reporters’ questions about Wagner’s possible return to Ukraine to the military.
The meeting apparently reflected the Kremlin’s plan to land Wagner’s mercenaries back on the front lines in Ukraine after the brief rebellion and the suspicious deaths of the group’s leader, Prigozhin, and his associates in a plane crash on August 23. The private army that once counted tens of thousands of members in its ranks is a valuable tool in the hands of the Kremlin.
The June 23-24 uprising was aimed at ousting the leadership of the Russian Defense Ministry, which Mr. Prigozhin blamed for mishandling the war in Ukraine and trying to bring Wagner under control. His mercenaries took control of Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and then advanced towards Moscow before he abruptly ended the uprising.
Russian President Putin called them “traitors,” but the Kremlin quickly negotiated a deal that ended the uprising in exchange for amnesty from prosecution. The mercenaries were given the option to choose to retire from the service, leave for Belarus or sign new contracts with the Ministry of Justice.
In July, Mr. Putin said he had met 35 of Wagner’s commanders, including Mr. Prigozhin, and had suggested they continue to serve under Mr. Troshev, who goes by the nickname “Grey Hair,” but Mr. Prigozhin at the time refused the offer.
Meanwhile, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Friday that hundreds of former Wagner operatives have begun landing in Ukraine to fight with the Russian military or private military groups.
Wagner’s veterans, they say, are concentrated around Bakhmut, where their experience would be considered important because of the familiarity with the front line and the tactics of the Ukrainian army gained from the war last winter.