Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered one of the top commanders of the Wagner military contractor to take charge of “volunteer units” fighting in Ukraine.
The move signals the Kremlin’s intention to keep using the mercenaries after the death of their chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
In remarks released by the Kremlin, Mr Putin told Andrei Troshev that his task is to “deal with forming volunteer units that could perform various combat tasks, primarily in the zone of the special military operation” – a term the Kremlin uses for its war in Ukraine.
Deputy defence minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was also present at the meeting late on Thursday, a sign that Wagner mercenaries will likely serve under the defence ministry’s command.
Speaking in a conference call with reporters on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Mr Troshev now works for the defence ministry and referred questions about Wagner’s possible return to Ukraine to the military.
Wagner fighters have had no significant role on the battlefield since they withdrew after capturing the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.
The meeting appeared to reflect the Kremlin’s plan to redeploy some Wagner mercenaries to the front line in Ukraine following their brief mutiny in June and Mr Prigozhin’s suspicious death in a plane crash on August 23.
The private army that once counted tens of thousands of troops is a precious asset the Kremlin wants to exploit.
The June 23-24 rebellion aimed to oust the Russian defence ministry’s leadership that Mr Prigozhin blamed for mishandling the war in Ukraine and trying to place Wagner under its control.
His mercenaries took over Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and then rolled toward Moscow before abruptly halting the mutiny.
Mr Putin denounced them as “traitors”, but the Kremlin quickly negotiated a deal ending the uprising in exchange for amnesty from prosecution.
The mercenaries were offered a choice to retire from the service, move to Belarus or sign new contracts with the defence ministry.
Mr Putin said in July that five days after the mutiny he had a meeting with 35 Wagner commanders, including Mr Prigozhin, and suggested they keep serving under Mr Troshev, who goes by the call sign “Grey Hair” – but Prigozhin refused the offer then.
Mr Troshev is a retired military officer who has played a leading role in Wagner since its creation in 2014 and faced European Union sanctions over his role in Syria as the group’s executive director.
Wagner mercenaries have played a key role in Moscow’s war in Ukraine, spearheading the capture of Bakhmut in May after months of fierce fighting.
Kyiv’s troops are now seeking to reclaim it as part of their summer counter-offensive that has slowly recaptured some of its lands but now faces the prospect of wet and cold weather that could further delay progress.
Press Association – AP