Three weeks after marching on Moscow, the Wagner Group has seemingly been withdrawn from the battlefield in Ukraine, according to the Pentagon. Pentagon press secretary Patrick Ryder said there was evidence to suggest that the 25,000-strong mercenary group was not ‘participating in any significant capacity in support of combat operations in Ukraine’.
The Pentagon’s statement follows weeks of rumours and speculation about how successfully Vladimir Putin is dealing with the fallout of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion. Many Kremlin-watchers expected the President to crack down hard on the Wagner leader – and were subsequently puzzled when Prigozhin was allowed to nominally retreat into self-imposed exile in Belarus.
But several days after the mutiny Prigozhin was spotted, not in Belarus, but in St Petersburg, entering Wagner HQ. Questions remained over whether Putin would try to keep the Wagner Group fighters on the frontline in Ukraine, not least because they have proved useful in recent months at propping up Russia’s faltering offensive in areas such as Bakhmut.
The news that Wagner isn’t operational in Ukraine coincides with an interview with Putin by the pro-Kremlin newspaper Kommersant, trailed in the Russian press today. In it, Putin lifts the lid on what he says happened at a meeting with Wagner fighters in the Kremlin five days after the failed rebellion. (On opening the meeting he claims to have quipped to those present, ‘Well then, you’re in the Kremlin now.’)
Putin says he spoke to the group for three hours, offering them the opportunity to keep fighting in Ukraine under their immediate commander on the ground – Andrei Nikolayevich Troshev, known as ‘Grey Hair’. When asked by Kommersant’s interviewer if the mercenary group would remain as a combat unit, the President said: ‘Well PMC [private military company] Wagner does not exist!’ When pressed about this comment, he reverted back to the line of plausible deniability that was standard before Wagner began to take centre stage in the conflict: ‘There is a group, but legally it does not exist.