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Russian mercenary leader Prigozhin’s commanders pledge loyalty at Kremlin after short-lived mutiny

By The Associated Press

Mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin ‘s commanders pledged loyalty to the Russian government in a Kremlin meeting with President Vladimir Putin five days after they staged a short-lived rebellion, a senior government spokesman said Monday, the latest twist in a baffling episode that has raised questions about the power and influence both men wield.

The three-hour meeting took place June 29 and also involved not only Prigozhin but commanders from his 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 revolt itself.

“The commanders themselves presented their version of what happened. They underscored that they are staunch supporters and soldiers of the head of state and the commander-in-chief, and also said that they are ready to continue to fight for their homeland,” Peskov said.

The confirmation that Putin met face-to-face with Prigozhin, who led troops on a march to Moscow last month to demand a military leadership change, was extraordinary. Though the Russian leader branded Prigozhin a traitor as the revolt unfolded and vowed harsh punishment, the criminal case against the mercenary chief on rebellion charges was later dropped.

Prigozhin has not commented on the Kremlin meeting, and his ultimate fate remains unclear, particularly since Monday’s announcement shows much is negotiated behind closed doors. He could still face prosecution for financial wrongdoing or other charges.

Monday’s announcement came as Russia’s Defense Ministry published a video featuring military chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov — who was one of the targets of Prigozhin’s rebellion. It was the first time Gerasimov has been seen since the revolt.

The twin updates appeared to be another attempt by the Kremlin to show it’s in control after a turbulent period, and to reflect Putin’s delicate balance between condemning the biggest threat to his 23-year rule and the man behind it while not alienating a popular figure whose troops scored the biggest battlefield victory for Russia in the past year of the war.

Former Putin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov told The Associated Press that Putin acknowledges Prigozhin’s patriotism and needs his forces on the front line, while Prigozhin needs Putin to ensure his freedom from prosecution. The two are negotiating as allies, with Prigozhin escaping punishment, Gallyamov said.

Prigozhin “emerged victorious from this rebellion,” Gallyamov said in a Zoom interview from Tel Aviv. “He has shown himself to be the master of the situation.”

Adding to the unusual nature of the meeting was that until very recently, Putin had denied any link between the state and Prigozhin’s forces. Mercenaries are illegal in Russia, but Wagner troops have fought for Russian interests around the globe and played a vital role in the capture of Bakhmut in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle. Putin has confirmed that Prigozhin’s companies operated under government contracts.

Throughout the war, Prigozhin has criticized decisions made by Russia’s top military brass, leading to tensions with the Kremlin that culminated in the June 24 mutiny.

The rebellion severely weakened Putin’s authority, even though Prigozhin claimed the uprising was not aimed at the president but at removing Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gerasimov. Prigozhin called off his mutiny after a deal was brokered for him to go to Belarus.

Mark Galeotti, an author who heads the consulting firm Mayak Intelligence, said the delicate dance with Prigozhin is “a further compromise on Putin’s part and reflects his unwillingness to take tough and ruthless personnel decisions.”

“He is willing to see Ukrainians bombed by the dozen, but not confront any of the figures in his own circle,” Galeotti wrote in The Spectator.

Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, predicted that some Russian observers would be stunned by the turn of events.

“When you look from the point of view of Russian elite, it’s ridiculous,” she told the AP. “It’s just so unbelievable and just so shocking.”

Days after the revolt, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said 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 during the June 29 meeting, Putin offered an “assessment” of Wagner’s actions on the battlefield in Ukraine and “of the events of June 24.” The president also “listened to the explanations of the commanders and offered them options for further employment and further use in combat,” the Kremlin spokesman said.

A total of 35 people took part in the meeting, Peskov said. Putin has given options to Prigozhin’s fighters: fight as part of the regular Russian army, retire from service or join Prigozhin in Belarus.

A NATO summit later this week in Lithuania is looking at how to crank up the pressure on Moscow after 16 months of war.

In other developments, a Russian airstrike on a school in southern Ukraine killed four adults as people gathered to receive humanitarian aid, the governor of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region said Monday, branding the attack “a war crime.”

Three women and a man, all in their 40s, died in the strike Sunday in the town of Orikhiv, Gov. Yuriy Malashko said.

A guided aerial bomb caused an explosion at the school, Malashko said, without providing evidence. Eleven other people were wounded in the attack, he said.

Overall, Russia fired on 10 settlements in the province over the course of a day, he said.

Moscow denies it targets civilian locations. Russia has been accused numerous times of doing so and committing other war crimes since the start of its full-scale invasion in February 2022.

In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine.

Investigations are also underway 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 helping with those probes.

Ukraine has launched a counteroffensive to regain occupied land, and on Monday, the deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, reported progress.

She said the country’s fighters had reclaimed 10.2 square kilometers (3.9 square miles) of territory in the south and four square kilometers (1.5 square miles) in the east in the past week. The gains, she said on Telegram, included the commanding heights of Bakhmut, where Prigozhin’s forces declared control of the city in May. None of the claims could be independently verified.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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