Russian president Vladimir Putin met Yevgeny Prigozhin and other Wagner commanders a few days after their aborted mutiny, the Kremlin revealed on Monday.
Dmitry Peskov, the president’s spokesperson, said Putin invited at least 35 people, including Prigozhin and the battalion commanders from the private military group, to the Kremlin on June 29. The meeting lasted nearly three hours.
The revelation is another stunning turn in the Kremlin’s handling of Prigozhin and his Wagner group after their failed revolt on June 23-24. While Putin had initially branded the warlord “a traitor”, he later dropped all charges and allowed him to leave Russia for Belarus in a deal brokered by the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko.
The admission of Putin’s meeting with Wagner leaders — 10 days after the Kremlin said it took place — marked yet another signal that Russia was in no hurry to dole out harsh punishments to Prigozhin and instead has been eager to keep the warlord and other commanders from the mercenary group on side.
Last week, it emerged that Prigozhin had apparently been travelling freely across Russia, according to flight tracking of his private jet between Moscow and St Petersburg, with local news outlets reporting sightings of Prigozhin in different Russian locations.
In his description of the meeting between the president and Prigozhin, Peskov suggested a civil discussion took place, with both sides giving their version of recent events, rather than Putin giving the Wagner leader a severe reprimand over the failed revolt.
“The details of the meeting are unknown. But the . . . president gave his assessment of the battalion in terms of the special military operation [in Ukraine] and also gave his assessment for the events of June 24,” Peskov said.
He added: “Putin listened to the explanations of the commanders and suggested further options for employment and their use in combat. Тhe commanders themselves put forward their version of what happened.”
He also restated the Kremlin’s previous narrative that Prigozhin and the other commanders’ criticism had been directed not at Putin himself, but at the overall conduct of the war by the army leadership.
“They emphasised that they are strong supporters and soldiers of the head of government and supreme commander [Putin] and said they’re ready to fight for the motherland,” Peskov said.
Prigozhin was a former caterer who served a prison sentence for robbery during the fall of the Soviet Union. His relationship with Putin dates back to St Petersburg in the 1990s when Putin began visiting Prigozhin’s restaurant.
Prigozhin served as a kind of a fixer for Putin and built a catering company and private military group with extensive government contracts — ties that also make the relationship harder to untangle.
While the Kremlin has provided little information about the depth of the two men’s relationship, Lukashenko suggested last week that Putin might have more empathy for Prigozhin than his initial public statements about the uprising had let on.
“They had a very good relationship with each other. Maybe even more than kind,” Lukashenko said.
He added: “It’s one thing to speak out to the world, but what you feel inside is another thing entirely.”