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Putin met with Wagner founder and his mercenaries just days after they led a mutiny

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

There are more twists in the story of last month's failed Wagner uprising in Russia. The Kremlin now says President Vladimir Putin met with Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and his mercenaries just days after they led a mutiny against Putin's top generals. Meanwhile, one of those generals has suddenly resurfaced for the first time since the rebellion. To break it down for us, we're joined by NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Hi.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hey, Adrian.

FLORIDO: So what do we know about this meeting between Putin and Wagner's leadership?

MAYNES: Well, for weeks, there's been intense speculation over Prigozhin's whereabouts. The press didn't know where he was, and the Kremlin basically said the same. And yet that turns out apparently not to be entirely true.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DMITRY PESKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: In his call with the reporters today, spokesman Dmitry Peskov, heard here, acknowledged that President Vladimir Putin hosted Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and nearly three dozen of his mercenary commanders for talks in Moscow late last month - June 29, to be exact. According to Peskov, the meeting took place in the Kremlin and lasted nearly three hours. And during the meeting, President Putin gave his assessment of Wagner's actions. In turn, Wagner commanders explained why they had done what they'd done, but assured the Kremlin leader they remained loyal and were ready to continue fighting for Russia. And Peskov said Putin then discussed new employment options for Wagner.

FLORIDO: Did the Kremlin offer any details on what that might mean?

MAYNES: Well, Peskov didn't provide any details, but let's take a look at what we do know so far. You know, in the wake of the rebellion, Putin presented the failed uprising as a victory for law and order against the Wagner threat. Putin also touted his own role in an amnesty deal that allowed Prigozhin and the rebels exile in neighboring Belarus, saying it prevented bloodshed and civil war. And yet the terms of that deal over the past few days have come into question, particularly after the leader of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, told reporters last week that Prigozhin was now back in Russia and that the Wagner fighters had yet to relocate to Belarus as initially agreed.

FLORIDO: So a lot of players, a lot of intrigue, a lot that is...

MAYNES: Yeah.

FLORIDO: ...Still unclear. Meanwhile, though, a missing general also reappeared today. What can you tell us about him?

MAYNES: Sure. You know, the general in question is chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov. So he's the number two at the defense ministry. He hadn't been seen in public since the June 24 uprising, and yet suddenly he's back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VALERY GERASIMOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So in a video released by the Defense Ministry, we see Gerasimov at a base in uniform giving orders and overseeing airstrikes against enemy targets in Ukraine, supposedly on Sunday. More critically, the video identified Gerasimov in his other current post as the commander of Russia's so-called special military operation in Ukraine. In other words, he's still got his job.

FLORIDO: So Charles, there's a long tradition of Kremlinology of assessing and analyzing and parsing what the Kremlin is doing and a long tradition of getting that wrong. So at the risk of interpretation here, what do you make of these two events coming to light?

MAYNES: Well, what I can say with some certainty is this changes the narrative again. Remember, Putin initially described the rebellion as treason. Then after this amnesty deal was offered in Belarus, Putin said the most important takeaway was that the uprising failed, and it became a story of the nation rallying together against Wagner. And now it seems there's a new narrative taking shape. If we take the Kremlin's words at face value, this supposed meeting between Putin and Prigozhin seems to offer Wagner a way to redeem itself back on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Gerasimov's sudden return dampens down rumors he'd been sacked. In fact, Gerasimov now joins Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in continuing to escape any real consequences, at least so far, for failing to stop the rebellion. Remember, Wagner took control of a major city in the south. It marched almost to the gates of Moscow unopposed.

You know, and given all of that, it's starting to feel like no one will be punished for either the rebellion or its roots in Russia's military setbacks in Ukraine. And let's not forget - some 15 Russians airmen died in fighting with Wagner during the uprising. Moving on won't be as easy for their families.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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