Vladimir Putin has tasked a former Wagner commander with overseeing volunteer fighters in Ukraine following a first public meeting between the pair since the killing of Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The Russian president was shown on state television holding talks at the Kremlin with Andrei Troshev, known by his callsign “Sedoi”, or grey-hair.
A brief clip of the meeting aired on Friday showed Putin telling Mr Troshev that he wanted to discuss how to best employ “volunteer units” in the war in Ukraine.
He said: “At our last meeting we talked about the fact that you will be involved in the formation of volunteer units that can perform various combat tasks, above all, of course, in the zone of the special military operation.
“You yourself have been fighting in such a unit for more than a year,” he added. “You know what it is, how it is done, you know about the issues that need to be resolved in advance so that the combat work goes in the best and most successful way.”
Putin also said he wanted to speak about social support for those involved in the fighting.
Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, told Russian state media that the ex-Wagner commander, a veteran of Russia’s wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, now works at the defence ministry.
Mr Troshev, who was wearing a suit rather than combat fatigues, was shown leaning forward and listening attentively.
He sat next to Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, a deputy defence minister, who has recently travelled to several countries where Wagner mercenaries have been active.
The Kremlin said the meeting took place late on Thursday.
Their comments were not aired and no further details about the meeting were released, but the clip may be a signal that Mr Troshev and Yevkurov will take control of the remnants of the Wagner group.
The future of the notorious, private military company has been uncertain since Prigozhin, its founder, led thousands of mercenaries in a mutiny in June.
Prigozhin and a number of other senior Wagner figures were killed in August when his private jet crashed over Russia’s Tver region.
Putin told the Russian newspaper Kommersant after the mutiny that he offered Wagner commanders the option of continuing to fight as a unit under Mr Troshev rather than Prigozhin, but that Prigozhin rejected the offer.
Mr Troshev, a former commander in the SOBR interior ministry rapid reaction force, is from St Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, and has been pictured with the president in the past.
Hero of Russia
He was awarded Russia’s highest medal, Hero of Russia, in 2016 for the storming of Palmyra in Syria against Islamic State militants.
His televised meeting with Putin came just days after a Ukrainian military spokesman said several hundred members of Russia’s Wagner private mercenary group had returned to eastern Ukraine.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukrainian troops in the east, said: “We have recorded the presence of a maximum of several hundred fighters of the former Wagner PMC [private military company].”
He said that Wagner fighters were scattered in different places, were not part of a single unit, and had not made a significant impact.
Russian military bloggers have also reported that some Wagner fighters have been returning to Ukraine in recent weeks.