Russian President Vladimir Putin said he offered mercenaries from the Wagner private military company the option of continuing to serve as a single unit under their same commander when he met with them after the group's brief revolt last month that posed the most serious threat to his 23-year rule.
Putin's comments, published Friday, appeared to reflect his efforts to secure the loyalty of Wagner mercenaries, some of the most capable Russian forces in Ukraine, while the fate of their chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, remains unclear.
Remarks amid new cracks in Russian Military
They also came amid new cracks appearing in the Russian military as the war grinds through its 17th month and Ukraine conducts a counteroffensive against the invading forces.
In remarks to the business daily Kommersant, Putin for the first time described a Kremlin event attended by 35 Wagner commanders, including Prigozhin, on June 29, five days after their armed rebellion.
He said he praised their efforts in Ukraine, deplored their involvement in the mutiny - which he previously denounced as an act of treason - and offered them alternatives for future service.
Putin told Kommersant that one option would see Wagner keep the same commander who goes by the call name "Gray Hair" and has led the private army in Ukraine for 16 months.
"All of them could have gathered in one place and continued to serve," Putin told the newspaper, "And nothing would have changed for them. They would have been led by the same person who had been their real commander all along." Putin said many Wagner troops nodded in approval at the proposal, but Prigozhin, who was sitting in front and didn't see their reaction, quickly rejected the idea, responding that "the boys won't agree with such a decision." Putin didn't mention where and in what numbers Wagner could be deployed under his offer, or say what proposal the forces eventually accepted, if any.
Future of Wagner group, uncertain
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to elaborate on Wagner's future in Friday's conference call with reporters.
Putin has previously said Wagner troops had to choose whether to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry, move to neighbouring Belarus or retire from service.
Speaking to Kommersant, Putin emphasised that "rank-and-file soldiers of Wagner have fought honorably" in Ukraine, adding that "it's a cause for regret that they were drawn" into the mutiny.
Putin's remarks came in an interview with a Kommersant reporter who has special access to the president. They appeared to be part of efforts to denigrate Prigozhin while trying to maintain control over Wagner mercenaries and secure their loyalty.
The Russian president, who previously denied any links between the government and Wagner, acknowledged after the mutiny that Prigozhin's company has received billions of dollars from the state and noted that investigators would probe whether any of the funds had been stolen, a warning to Prigozhin that he could face financial crimes.
State-controlled media have posted videos and photos of Prigozhin's opulent mansion in St. Petersburg, including stacks of cash, gold bars and fake passports.
The images appeared to be part of a smear campaign against the Wagner chief, who has portrayed himself as an enemy of corrupt elites even though he owes his wealth to Putin.
"Wagner operated without legal basis"
Putin also said Wagner has operated without legal basis.
"There is no law on private military organizations. It simply doesn't exist," he told Kommersant, adding that the government and the parliament have yet to discuss the issue of private military contractors.
In the revolt that lasted less than 24 hours on June 23-24, Prigozhin's mercenaries quickly swept through the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and captured the military headquarters there without firing a shot, before driving to within about 200 kilometres (125 miles) of Moscow.
Prigozhin called it a "march of justice" to oust Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who demanded that Wagner sign contracts with the Defense Ministry by July 1.
The mutiny faced little resistance and fighters downed at least six military helicopters and a command post aircraft, killing at least 10 airmen.
Prigozhin ordered his mercenaries back to their camps after striking a deal to end the rebellion in exchange for an amnesty for him and his men, and permission to move to Belarus.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who brokered the deal, has said Prigozhin was in Russia while Wagner's troops were in their field camps.
He didn't specify the camps' location but Prigozhin's mercenaries fought alongside Russian forces in eastern Ukraine before their revolt and also have bases in Russia.
Lukashenko said his military could benefit from the private army's combat experience, and Belarusian state TV broadcast video Friday of Wagner instructors training Belarusian territorial defence forces at a firing range near Asipovichy, where a camp offered to Wagner is located.
A Belarusian messaging app channel said Prigozhin spent a night at the camp earlier this week and posted a photo of him inside a tent.
While the fate of Prigozhin remains cloudy, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday that Wagner was handing over its weapons to the Russian military.
That appeared to show attempts by Russian authorities to defuse the threat posed by the mercenaries and also seemed to herald an end to the group's operations in Ukraine.
At the same time, new fissures have emerged in the military command. Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov, commander of the 58th army in the Zaporizhzhia region, a focal point in Ukraine's counteroffensive, said he was dismissed after speaking out about problems faced by his troops in what he described as a "treacherous" stab in the back.
Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, refused to comment on Popov's remarks, referring questions about it to the Defense Ministry that also hasn't commented.
In the latest fighting, Ukraine said it shot down 16 Iranian-made Shahed drones launched overnight from Russia's southern Krasnodar region.
The presidential administration said at least four civilians were killed and 10 wounded in the previous 24 hours.
In southern Russia, three drones were destroyed late Thursday while approaching the city of Voronezh, regional Gov. Alexander Gusev said, adding there were no injuries or damage.
A drone also crashed and exploded in Kurchatov, where the Kursk nuclear power plant is located without causing any damage to key facilities, said regional Gov. Roman Starovoit.
And three people were wounded when a car exploded in a residential area of Belgorod, near the Ukraine border, according to regional Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba responded to suggestions this week by British Defense Minister Ben Wallace that Ukraine could show more "gratitude" for Western military aid it is receiving.
Kuleba said the remark was an "unfortunate misunderstanding on the part of the British minister." "No one has any reason to accuse us of any ingratitude. But the truth is that, sorry, we are at war," he said. "When we win, then I will say, thank you, the weapons were enough,' but while the struggle continues, the weapons are not enough."