Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin held a lengthy meeting with Yevgeny V. Prigozhin and commanders of his private military company Wagner just days after they launched an insurgency that has brought the nation to the brink of civil conflict, the Kremlin said Monday.
Mr Putin denounced the leaders of the June 23-24 uprising as traitors, so the surprise revelation that he hosted them on June 29 suggests that for all his turmoil, he saw continued use for the mercenary group and its leader. The meeting is the first known contact between the two men since the uprising, which presented the most dramatic challenge to Mr. Putin’s authority in his 23 years in power.
News of the meeting added to the mystery of what would happen to Mr. Prigozhin and his force after the uprising. It remains unclear why a warlord with his own private army, who tried to oust the Russian military leadership by force, was allowed to remain in the country, seemingly unimpeded, allegedly even returning to his hometown of St. Petersburg to claim his. confiscated firearms.
Mr. Putin invited 35 people to the three-hour meeting, including Mr. Prigozhin and all of Wagner’s top executives, and gave his assessment of the company’s efforts on the battlefield in Ukraine, as well as its actions in the insurgency, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri. S. Peskov said.
The Wagner fighters also offered their explanation for what happened, according to Mr. Peskov, who suggested the meeting was an opportunity to clear the air and set a course going forward. “Putin heard the commanders and offered more employment options and more combat capabilities,” he said.
Wagner’s fighters pledged their loyalty to the Russian leader during the meeting, the Kremlin spokesman added.
“They emphasized that they are staunch supporters and soldiers of the head of state and commander-in-chief – and also said that they are ready to fight for the country going forward,” he said.
The image of Mr Prigozhin and his top lieutenants sitting peacefully at a table with the Russian leader – just days after Mr Putin vowed to crush their rebellion – contrasted with the widely held image of Mr Putin as a ruthless authoritarian, adept at brandishing threats to his rule.
It seemed to reflect a calculation by the Kremlin to avoid completely wiping out an experienced fighting force with a popular following in the middle of a costly war. Some analysts say the Russian president may also view the insurrection as little more than a factional dispute that has gotten out of hand. Mr. Prigozhin said he intended to topple the Russian military leadership — not to challenge Mr. Putin’s rule.
“I wouldn’t assume that Prigozhin is back in Putin’s good graces forever and nothing happened. Something happened. Conclusions are being drawn now,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “But just crush them and crush him at this point is somehow disadvantageous, compared to keeping him afloat.”
Andrey Soldatov, an expert on Russian security services, said Mr Putin’s tough talk about treason was aimed mainly at the Russian military, to prevent some commanders from supporting the rebellion. Later, he said, the president and Mr. Prigozhin “just made another deal.”
“We don’t know the terms,” Mr. Soldatov added. “But the understanding is that they know each other, know what to expect from each other, so they can still work together or work together.”
But the uprising has put Mr. Putin’s vulnerability on global display, and the admission that he chatted with Wagner leaders risks making him look even weaker.
Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political consultancy R.Politik, said the Kremlin may have decided to publicize the meeting to reassure Russian elites who remain confused about what happened – about whether Mr Prigozhin is “a traitor or our guy.”
“It’s a signal to the elite that Prigozhin remains systematic,” Ms. Stanovaya said. “Yes, he was wrong, yes, this is a very serious crime. But due to the specifics of the situation, which is really very unique, Putin will give him the chance to survive.”
The uprising exposed Mr Putin’s inability or unwillingness to deal with a power struggle that has raged openly for months, with Mr Prigozhin regularly launching profanity-laced invective against Russia’s military leadership on Telegram. Ms. Stanovaya, who is also a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said she suspects that Mr. Putin feels at least partially responsible for not better managing the escalating dispute.
“So for Putin, Prigozhin is of course a traitor, but he is his traitor,” said Mrs. Stanovaya. “That is a man who made a mistake out of stupidity, rather than out of malice.”
The Kremlin has previously deflected questions about Mr. Prigozhin’s status and whereabouts.
On the day that Mr. Putin and Mr. Prigozhin met, Mr. Peskov told reporters, he did not know where Mr. Prigozhin was. The following week, Mr Peskov said the Kremlin had neither the “ability nor the desire” to track his movements.
But on Friday, the French newspaper Libération reported that Mr. Putin met with Mr. Prigozhin and his Wagner commanders at the Kremlin to “negotiate the fate of his empire,” which includes various business ventures.
On Monday, Mr. Peskov confirmed that the meeting had taken place, but added, “The details of it are unknown.”
Mr Prigozhin’s forces have been important to Russia’s war against Ukraine, but last month the government ordered Wagner troops fighting there to join the regular military. Facing a serious loss of power, Mr. Prigozhin loudly reviled the move, to no avail.
His fighters seized the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, and a major Russian military headquarters there, and staged a drive on Moscow that stopped within 125 miles of the capital.
Mr Putin warned in a national speech against a descent into civil war, and said the harshest punishment awaited those who “knowingly chose the path of betrayal”.
But the punishment did not come.
Hours later, the Kremlin announced a deal, allegedly brokered by the Belarusian leader Alexander G. Lukashenko: Mr. Prigozhin would resign, avoid prosecution and leave for Belarus. Wagner fighters who participated in the rebellion would also avoid punishment; those who did not participate would be given the opportunity to sign Russian military contracts.
Mr. Prigozhin and his men packed up and retreated.
The deal angered hard-line Russian commentators, who noted that the rebels shot down Russian planes, killing military personnel.
In the days that followed, Mr. Prigozhin’s condition was a mystery. He has not made any public appearances. His company stopped posting responses to questions from the media. The man who emerged from the shadows last year to make a public name for himself has fallen silent, at least temporarily.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that in Mr. Putin’s world, where those who cause political trouble regularly end up imprisoned or killed, Mr. Prigozhin is not only still alive, but appears to be moving freely around Russia.
Mr Lukashenko said days after the uprising that Mr Prigozhin had arrived in Belarus, but it is not clear whether this is true. Last week the Belarusian leader said Mr Prigozhin was in Russia – which US officials confirmed – and was a “free man”.
On Thursday, Mr. Prigozhin was seen arriving in a BMW 7-series sedan at the St. Petersburg headquarters of the FSB, the successor to the Soviet KGB, where he collected weapons that the Russian authorities seized from his country house during the uprising, the independent news outlet reported. Fontanka Days earlier, Fontanka said, one of his drivers had arrived to collect billions of rubles, hundreds of thousands of dollars and several gold bars that Russian authorities had seized in vehicles parked at St. Petersburg hotels associated with him.
Mr. Lukashenko said immediately after the uprising that Wagner fighters, like their leader, would be welcome in Belarus. Last week, his government said none had come, but that might change.
A prominent Wagner commander, Anton Yelizarov, who goes by the name de guerre Lotos, gave an interview to a Russian war blogger on Friday, from southern Russia, in which he said all Wagner fighters had been released during a truce until early August – and suggested he spent time with his family by the sea.
In the interview, posted on Telegram, Mr. Yelizarov said that Wagner will temporarily stand aside in Ukraine and has a lot of work to do to prepare his “exit” to Belarus.
“There is no conflict with law enforcement agencies, the president has guaranteed us that,” Mr Yelizarov said. “As far as society and normal people are concerned, you can tell for yourself: girls walk around with patches that they pushed our guys away, most likely for kisses. Boys wear T-shirts and hats with our logos. Little children play war games, with the Ukrainians as the Germans and Wagner PMC fighters as the Red Army.”
He did not rule out the possibility of the mercenary group becoming involved again in Ukraine. “Our armored train is in reserve, and we stand ready to help our Motherland and our nation when the Russian people call us,” he said.