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The message behind Putin’s Wagner meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “vertical of power” – the way in which the entire structure of Russian political power rests on one man – has undergone profound stress testing in the wake of the Wagner mercenary group’s aborted march on Moscow in June.

But everything is now business as usual, and the remnants of Wagner are back in the government’s control, if Kremlin messaging is to be believed.

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

The meeting was held in a long-familiar format. Putin was seated at the head of a conference table with briefing papers and notes, making some general remarks before settling down to official business. The language was sober, competent and relatively substance-free: It could have been a routine meeting with a regional governor to discuss economic plans, at least judging by the official readout.

But unpack the language, and Putin’s Friday meeting appeared to put a reassuring gloss on the Russian government’s attempt to bring the mercenary group to heel. Troshev – who goes by the call sign, ‘Sedoy,’ meaning ‘grey hair’ – is the man Putin tapped to run the mercenary outfit after its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin’s dramatic fall from grace.

After leading the group’s insurrection this summer and then accepting an apparent deal to end it, Prigozhin died in late August when his private jet plummeted from the skies over Russia’s Tver region. But the damage that Prigozhin did to Putin’s image of infallibility has lingered.

So Putin on Friday did one of the things he does best: Delving into the minutiae of governing.

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

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

A glimpse of the future

By dangling the carrot of “social guarantees,” one might conclude that the Russian government will be taking on the system of cash handouts and compensation that Wagner fighters in Ukraine enjoyed under Prigozhin’s leadership, something that won the mercenary leader some measure of loyalty. That such guarantees accrue “regardless of status” would appear to acknowledge that mercenary activities are technically proscribed by Russian law.

The Russian leader also alluded to an earlier offer made to Wagner fighters after the short-lived rebellion: Sign contracts with the Russian ministry of defense, or head for neighboring Belarus. Wagner’s future in Belarus has since been thrown into doubt and the Russian government appears to be moving more energetically to bring the remnants of Wagner into conventional military structures, along with all the benefits that might entail.

“At the last meeting, we talked about the fact that you will be involved in the formation of volunteer units that can perform various combat missions, primarily, of course, in the zone of a special military operation,” Putin said, using the official doublespeak for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“You yourself fought in such a unit for more than a year. You know what it is, how it’s done, you know about the issues that need to be resolved in advance so that combat work goes on in the best and most successful way.”

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported Friday that Troshev “is already working with the defense ministry” – citing Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov – signaling that he will not be a freelance entrepreneur as Prigozhin was.

But that doesn’t answer the somewhat 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 fighters have been active in several African countries, including Mali, the Central African Republic, and Libya.

The presence of Yevkurov in the meeting may offer one 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 the renegade general Khalifa Haftar.

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

Evidence has also emerged that Wagner has 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 future Wagner activity while Troshev takes on a different brief: overseeing Wagner 2.0 for the war in Ukraine.

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