As Putin is the army’s commander-in-chief, he seemed to be implying that they would remain within the Russian military, although he did not say that explicitly.
“Many of then nodded when I said this,” Kommersant quoted Putin as saying.
However, Prigozhin disagreed, it reported.
“Prigozhin … said after listening: ’No, the boys won’t agree with such a decision,” Kommersant quoted Putin as saying.
Wagner fighters played a key role in the Russian army’s advance into eastern Ukraine and were the driving force in the capture in May of the city of Bakhmut after months of battles.
But Prigozhin constantly accused the military of failing to back his men and Wagner fighters unhappy with the Defence Ministry’s conduct of the war took control of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don on June 23 and began moving towards Moscow.
They halted their advance the next day after being offered a deal under which they could resettle in Belarus, along with Prigozhin. Any notion of pressing charges against Prigozhin was dropped.
Putin told the newspaper there was no possibility of Wagner remaining in its current form.
“Wagner does not exist,” Putin told Kommersant. “There is no law on private military organisations. It just doesn’t exist.”
In a sign of fissures in the military command following the brief rebellion, a Russian general in charge of forces fighting in southern Ukraine has been relieved of his duties after speaking out about problems faced by his troops.
Major General Ivan Popov, the commander of the 58th army in the Zaporizhzhia region, which is a focal point in Ukraine’s counteroffensive, said in an audio statement to his troops released Wednesday night that he was dismissed after a meeting with the military brass in what he described as a “treacherous” stab in the back to Russian forces in Ukraine.
Popov said the military leadership was angered by his frank talk about challenges faced by his forces, particularly the shortage of radars tracking enemy artillery, which resulted in massive Russian casualties.
“The top officers apparently saw me as a source of threat and rapidly issued an order to get rid of me, which was signed by the defence minister in just one day,” he said.
“The Ukrainian military has failed to break through our army’s defences, but the top commander hit us in the rear, treacherously and cowardly beheading the army at this most difficult moment.”
Popov, who uses the call name “Spartacus,” addressed his troops as “my gladiators” in the audio message released by retired General Andrei Gurulev, who commanded the 58th army in the past and currently serves as a lawmaker. The 58th army consists of several divisions and smaller units.
The 48-year-old Popov, who has risen from platoon commander to lead a large group of forces, has encouraged his soldiers to come directly to him with any problems — an easygoing approach that contrasted sharply with the stiff formal style of command common in the Russian military.
Russian military bloggers say he’s widely known for avoiding unnecessary losses — unlike many other commanders who were eager to sacrifice their soldiers to report successes.
“I faced a difficult situation with the top leadership when I had to either keep silent and act like a coward, saying what they wanted to hear, or call things by their names,” Popov said.
“I didn’t have the right to lie for the sake of you and our fallen comrades.”
Many military bloggers argued that Popov’s dismissal eroded troop morale at a time of relentless Ukrainian attacks.
News of Popov’s dismissal added to the blow that Russian troops received when another senior officer, Lieutenant General Oleg Tsokov, was killed Tuesday by a Ukrainian missile strike.
Popov’s remarks about the need to rotate his exhausted troops that have been fighting the Ukrainian counteroffensive since early June, reportedly angered General Staff chief General Valery Gerasimov, who shrugged them off as panicky and promptly ordered his dismissal.
Gerasimov was shown meeting with military officers on Monday in a video released by the Defence Ministry, the first time he was seen since last month’s abortive rebellion by Prigozhin, who had demanded his ouster.
The uproar fuelled by Popov’s dismissal could further erode the position of Gerasimov, who has faced broad criticism for his conduct of the fighting in Ukraine.
Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov noted that Popov’s statement echoed criticism of the top brass by Prigozhin. However, he added that the general’s statement wasn’t a rebellion, but instead a call for intervention by Putin.
“Such public disputes at the top of the Russian army isn’t a show of force,” he said.
Speaking in Helsinki on Thursday after a NATO summit, US President Joe Biden said he is not certain about what fate awaits Prigozhin.
“I’m not even sure where he is,” Biden said. “If I were he, I’d be careful what I ate, I’d be keeping an eye on my menu. But all kidding aside … I don’t know. I don’t think any of us know for certain what the future of Prigozhin is in Russia.”
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