The message behind Putin’s Wagner meeting

by MMC
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Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Pool/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with former Wagner mercenary group commander Andrei Troshev and Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov in Moscow, Russia, September 28, 2023.


That of Russian President Vladimir Putin “vertical of power” – the way in which the entire structure of Russian political power rests on one man – was subjected to profound tests following the attack by the Wagner mercenary group. aborted march in Moscow in June.

But everything is now business as usual, and Wagner’s remnants are once again under government control, if messages from the Kremlin are to be believed.

In a televised meeting On Friday, Putin met with Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and former Wagner commander Andrey Troshev, according to a partial transcript released by the Kremlin.

The meeting took place according to a long-familiar format. Putin sat at the head of a conference table with briefing papers and notes, making some general remarks before getting down to official business. The language was sober, competent and relatively devoid of substance: this could have been a routine meeting with a regional governor to discuss economic plans, at least judging by the official text.

But unpack the language, and Putin’s meeting on Friday seemed to lend a reassuring edge to the Russian government’s attempt to bring the mercenary group to heel. Troshev – who goes by the call sign “Sedoy,” meaning “gray hair” – is the man Putin hired to run the mercenary enterprise after the dramatic downfall of its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

After leading the group’s insurgency this summer and then accepting an apparent deal to end it, Prigozhin died in late August when his private jet crashed from the sky over Russia’s Tver region. But the damage caused by Prigozhin to Putin’s image of infallibility continues.

So Putin did on Friday one of the things he does best: delve into the smallest details of government.

“I would like to talk to you about social issues,” Putin told Troshev, without naming Wagner. “You maintain relationships with your comrades that you fought together with, and now you continue to carry out these combat missions. »

Putin continued: “We created the Defenders of the Fatherland fund, and I have said this many times and I want to emphasize it once again: regardless of the status of the person who performs or has performed combat missions, social guarantees must be absolutely the same. for everyone.”

By brandishing the carrot of “social guarantees”, one could conclude that the Russian government will adopt the system of distributions of money and compensation from which Wagner’s fighters in Ukraine benefited under the leadership of Prigozhin, which earned the mercenary leader a certain loyalty. The fact that such guarantees apply “regardless of status” would seem to recognize that mercenary activities are technically prohibited under Russian law.

The Russian leader also hinted at an earlier offer made to Wagner’s fighters after the short-lived rebellion: sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry, or head to neighboring Belarus. Wagner’s future in Belarus has since been called into doubt, and the Russian government appears to be moving more energetically to integrate Wagner’s remnants into conventional military structures, with all the benefits that might entail.

“At the last meeting we talked about the fact that you will participate in the training of volunteer units capable of carrying out various combat missions, mainly, of course, in the zone of a special military operation,” said Putin, using the official tone. double talk about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“You yourself fought in such a unit for over a year. You know what it is, how it is going, you know the issues that need to be resolved in advance so that the combat work can continue in the best and most successful way.”

Russia’s official RIA Novosti news agency reported Friday that Troshev is “already working with the Defense Ministry” – citing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov – signaling that he will not be an independent contractor as was Prigozhin.

But that doesn’t answer the broader question of what the Russian state plans to do with all the work it has outsourced to Wagner in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. Wagner’s fighters have been active in several African countries, including Mali, the Central African Republic and Libya.

Evkurov’s presence at the meeting could offer a clue. In late August, Yevkurov led a Russian military delegation to the Libyan city of Benghazi to meet with the Libyan National Army, led by renegade general Khalifa Haftar.

Wagner has supported the Libyan National Army for several years, reportedly supporting Haftar’s 2019-2020 military campaign against the Tripoli-based government. The U.S. military says Wagner also used Libya as a logistics base, flying cargo flights to bases in eastern Libya to resupply its operations there.

Evidence also emerged that Wagner used bases in Libya to supply Sudan’s rapid support forces.

Wagner has long acted as an often deniable extension of Russian foreign policy. If Friday’s meeting is any guide, Yevkurov appears to be a point man for Wagner’s future activities while Troshev takes on a different mission: overseeing Wagner 2.0 for the war in Ukraine.

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