As Russia’s president reasserts control after a failed mutiny, he wants to sideline the Wagner leader while keeping its fighters — who have started training troops in Belarus — working for him.
Three weeks after a brief mutiny in Russia by the Wagner mercenary group, President Vladimir V. Putin said its troops could keep fighting, but without their controversial leader, while the government of Belarus said some Wagner fighters were there, training its forces.
The future of Wagner and its personnel, who have played an important role in Mr. Putin’s war against Ukraine, remains in doubt, part of the dissension and turmoil in the Russian military hierarchy that has spilled into public view since the rebellion. But the Russian leader made clear that he intends to sideline the Wagner boss Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who directed the uprising.
Mr. Putin, in an interview published late on Thursday, gave an account of a three-hour meeting in the Kremlin, just days after the uprising, with Mr. Prigozhin and his top commanders. Mr. Putin, who has tried hard since the mutiny to demonstrate his unassailable control over state affairs, presented himself in the interview as a coolheaded arbiter towering above the tumult, and portrayed the mutiny as a minor internal dispute that he had resolved.
He said he had praised Wagner fighters for their military feats, and suggested that a different Wagner leader take over from Mr. Prigozhin, according to Kommersant, a Russian business daily that, along with a journalist from state television, conducted the interview. He said he told the Wagner troops that he “regretted that they had appeared dragged” into the mutiny, appearing to pin the blame on Mr. Prigozhin.
“I outlined the possible paths for their future military service, including in combat,” Mr. Putin said. “Many nodded as I was speaking,” he added, but Mr. Prigozhin, who he said sat in the front and didn’t see the nodding, responded that the “guys do not agree with such a decision.”
The government has ordered that Wagner troops who intend to keep fighting sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense, in effect becoming part of Russia’s regular military, which Mr. Prigozhin bitterly protested. But Mr. Putin’s latest comments appeared to leave open the possibility that there could continue to be Wagner units.
Mr. Putin wants to draw a sharp distinction between Wagner fighters, whose experience and expertise he can exploit, and the mercenary leader he now sees as reckless and untrustworthy, according to Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“They want to preserve the core of Wagner but under different leadership, one that is clearly much more loyal, and even controllable,” Ms. Stanovaya said in a phone interview.
“That meeting was a sign of reconciliation; not in the sense that the conflict is over, but in the sense that there are now rules of the game — you have to follow them,” she added.
A Kremlin spokesman first disclosed the meeting early this week, saying that the Wagner commanders had aired their concerns — a striking admission considering that days earlier, Mr. Putin had denounced the uprising’s leaders as traitors.
President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, who helped broker the end of Wagner’s uprising on June 24, said soon afterward that his country would welcome its fighters, and the Belarusian military quickly erected tent housing for thousands of troops at a disused base nine miles from the town of Asipovichy, about 50 miles southeast of the capital, Minsk. But last week, Mr. Lukashenko said there were no Wagner troops yet in Belarus, and the military invited foreign journalists to the camp to show that it was unoccupied.
On Friday, though, the Belarusian defense ministry said in a statement that Wagner soldiers were instructing members of a Belarusian military force in defense and battlefield tactics. A state television channel broadcast video of what its correspondent said was training by Wagner fighters “at a training base near Asipovichy,” but the affiliations of the troops in the video could not be independently verified. A defense ministry spokeswoman confirmed that at least part of the video was taken at the same site as the new tent camp.
Mr. Lukashenko, increasingly dependent on and subordinate to Mr. Putin, has made clear that he would like to have an experienced fighting force like Wagner at his disposal. In late June, in comments shown on state television, he urged his defense minister, Viktor Khrenin, to make the most of the opportunity.
“They will tell you about weapons — which worked well, which did not,” Mr. Lukashenko said. “And tactics, and weapons, and how to attack, how to defend. It is priceless.”
Mr. Prigozhin has said his rebellion was not aimed at toppling Mr. Putin, but at removing the military leaders in Moscow he had spent months denouncing as inept in foul-mouthed tirades that the president tolerated. After sending an armored column rolling toward the capital, he called off their advance after receiving assurances that he and the Wagner troops would not be punished.
The Pentagon said on Thursday that Wagner troops are no longer believed to be fighting in a major capacity in Ukraine. And the Russian Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that Wagner fighters had given up a lot of their weapons and equipment.
With the mercenaries apparently inactive and largely disarmed, the Kremlin has been making a clear attempt to diminish the role of their unruly leader. Mr. Prigozhin’s media empire, including several news websites, has been shut down, and his St. Petersburg mansion has been a regular feature of Russian state television, which portrayed its owner as a petty and immoral thug stockpiling cash, weapons, passports and possibly drugs.
There have also been signs of a shake-up reinforcing the grip of the military establishment that Mr. Prigozhin deplored. Gen. Sergei V. Surovikin, chief of the Russian air forces and a former chief of forces in Ukraine, seen as a Prigozhin ally, reportedly knew in advance of the mutiny and has not been seen publicly since; a top lawmaker said this week that the general was “taking a rest.”
On Wednesday night, a recording was made public of Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov accusing his superiors of undermining the war effort with dishonesty, and telling his troops that he had been removed from command of a Russian army in Ukraine for daring to speak truthfully about the flawed conduct of the war. Other commanders are said to have been questioned or detained, at least briefly.
So far the turmoil does not appear to have helped Ukrainian forces as they fight to retake territory in a slow-moving counteroffensive that began in early June.
Russia has launched several waves of attack drones at Ukrainian cities in recent days, including overnight into Friday morning, and it continues to bombard cities within artillery range. The Ukrainian authorities said on Friday that they had shot down 16 of 17 drones overnight.
Mr. Putin has identified as possibly the new leader of Wagner a man known as “Sedoi,” or “Gray-haired,” who the president said had been the actual commander of Wagner troops since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. European Union sanctions documents, Wagner-linked bloggers, and Russian media outlets have identified Sedoi as Andrei N. Troshev, a veteran of wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The sanctions documents referred to Mr. Troshev as a “founding member” and “executive director” of Wagner.
Mr. Putin has maintained an ambiguous stance on Wagner’s future, apparently leaving his options open. Days after the mutiny, he said that Russia had paid Wagner almost $1 billion in one year, but in the interview reported by Kommersant, he said that Wagner “does not exist,” at least legally.
“We don’t have a law on private military organizations,” Mr. Putin said. “There isn’t such a legal entity.”
Valerie Hopkins contributed reporting.