Putin admits Moscow paid Wagner mercenaries £800m in wages in a year – and that his forces ‘stopped civil war’

Vladimir Putin, left, and Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin (Getty/AP)
Vladimir Putin, left, and Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin (Getty/AP)

Vladimir Putin has admitted that Russia’s security services “stopped a civil war” during the mutiny launched by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries – whose wages and bonuses Moscow has funded to the tune of £800m over the past year.

His remarks came as the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, confirmed that the Wagner chief had arrived in his country as part of the last-minute deal that ended the extraordinary attempted coup. Mr Lukashenko said that Mr Progozhin and some of his troops were welcome to stay “for some time” at their own expense.

Mr Putin appeared outside the Kremlin to pay tribute to his troops, seeking to repair the image of strength that Saturday’s events had severely damaged. Speaking in front of hundreds of military personnel, Mr Putin said the country’s armed forces had proved their “loyalty to the people of Russia” in protecting the “motherland and its future”.

The Russian leader claimed that Moscow had not been forced to withdraw troops from Ukraine, and he held a minute’s silence in honour of the servicemen killed when Wagner forces shot down Russian military aircraft, including helicopters and a communications plane, as they marched on Moscow. The mercenaries stopped about 125 miles outside the capital.

Mr Putin was joined by Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, whose dismissal had been one of Mr Prigozhin’s main demands following a months-long feud between the Wagner chief and Russia’s military leadership.

While Russian authorities dropped a criminal case against Mr Prigozhin’s Wagner Group – apparently fulfilling another condition of the deal brokered by Mr Lukashenko – Mr Putin appeared to set the stage for financial charges to be brought against an organisation owned by Mr Prigozhin.

After his speech outside the Kremlin, Mr Putin told a military gathering that Mr Prigozhin’s Concord Group had earnt 80 billion rubles (£733m) from a contract to provide the military with food, and that Wagner had received more than 86 billion rubles (£790bn) between May 2022 and May 2023 for wages and additional items. That had come out of the defence ministry and state budgets. For years prior to Tuesday’s speech, the Kremlin had denied any links to the Wagner group.

“I hope that while doing so they didn’t steal anything, or stole not so much,” Mr Putin said, adding that the authorities would look closely at Concord’s contract. Police who searched Mr Prigozhin’s St Petersburg office on Saturday said they had found 4 billion rubles (£37m) in trucks outside, according to media reports confirmed by the Wagner boss. He said the money was intended to pay soldiers’ families.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov would not disclose details of the Kremlin’s deal with the Wagner chief. He said only that Mr Putin had provided Mr Prigozhin with “certain guarantees” with the aim of avoiding a “worst-case scenario”.

Asked why the armed Wagner forces were allowed to get as close as they did to Moscow without encountering any serious resistance, National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov told reporters: “We concentrated our forces in one fist closer to Moscow. If we spread them thin, they would have come like a knife through butter.”

Mr Zolotov also said the National Guard lacks battle tanks and other heavy weapons, and that these would now be provided.

Some Russian war bloggers have vented outrage at the failure to punish Mr Prigozhin and his troops for killing Russian military personnel. The treatment afforded to the Wagner Group stands in stark contrast to the harsh jail terms handed out to opposition activists who have criticised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In Belarus, Mr Lukashenko said that he had convinced Mr Prigozhin to end the mutiny in an emotional, expletive-laden phone call, adding that Mr Prigozhin had arrived in the southern Russian city of Rostov – which Wagner seized at the start of the rebellion – in a “semi-mad state”.

Mr Lukashenko said he spent hours on the phone in an effort to reason with the Wagner chief, who has said he was furious at the corruption and incompetence affecting the military leadership and wanted to avenge an alleged Russian army attack on his men. The Belarusian president said their calls contained “10 times” as many obscenities as normal language. Mr Lukashenko also said that, earlier on Saturday, Mr Putin had sought his help, complaining that Mr Prigozhin was not taking any calls. Mr Lukashenko said he had advised Mr Putin against “rushing” to crush the mutineers.

The Belarusian leader said his country would accommodate Wagner fighters who wanted to go there, though it was not building any camps for them. “We offered them one of the abandoned military bases. Please – we have a fence, we have everything – put up your tents,” Mr Lukashenko said, according to state media.

Such a prospect has alarmed the countries neighbouring Belarus. Latvia and Lithuania each called for Nato to strengthen its eastern borders in response, and Polish president Andrzej Duda called the move a “negative signal”.

Ukraine is hoping to take advantage of the chaos caused by the attempted coup to push on with its counteroffensive, which it hopes will allow it to retake its territory from Russia. The Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank that monitors the war, said Mr Putin’s offer to allow Wagner troops to sign contracts with the Russian army was “likely in an effort to retain them” in his war against Ukraine, because Moscow needs “trained and effective manpower” as it faces a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

In the US, the Pentagon said it would provide a new military package worth $500m (£390m) to support Ukraine’s war effort. The package will include ground vehicles including Bradley fighting vehicles and Stryker armoured personnel carriers, and munitions for high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARs) to support air defences.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report