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Putin backs push for mercenary groups to sign contracts despite Wagner’s refusal

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By Andrew Osborn

(Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday he backed a Defence Ministry order for mercenary groups fighting in Ukraine to sign contracts with it before July 1, something the high-profile Wagner Group has pointedly refused to do.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Wagner and Russia’s most powerful mercenary, has said his group will not sign a contract, citing what he regards as the inability of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, someone whom Prigozhin has repeatedly vilified, to manage groups like his.

But Putin on Tuesday made it clear he wanted to see all so-called private military companies sign up and that he also wanted to the law changed to legalise their activities.

“This is the only way to ensure social guarantees (for mercenary fighters) because there is (currently) no contract with the state and no contract with the Defence Ministry,” Putin told a group of war correspondents.

“This has to be done and it has to be done as quickly as possible,” Putin said.

The new contract system would much more closely integrate Wagner and Prigozhin, regarded as a reckless but effective maverick by some government officials, into the Defence Ministry’s command structure in a subordinate position.

That would make it harder for Prigozhin to build his own political and military influence, something he has spent months doing while receiving military hardware and ammunition from the army.

Putin’s intervention on the defence ministry’s side potentially puts Prigozhin in a difficult position, as the ministry has said that such contracts are required to give volunteer groups the “necessary legal status” to operate.

STANDOFF

Prigozhin earlier on Tuesday said he was not sure if his men would even continue to fight in Ukraine amid the bitter standoff with the Defence Ministry with which he has long been at odds over what he says is everything from its poor leadership and tactics to ammunition shortages.

The ministry has not responded to a request for comment on Prigozhin’s refusal to sign up with it. It has also not publicly commented on his scathing criticism of its performance.

Wagner fighters have proved themselves to be among Russia’s most effective in Ukraine despite suffering huge losses and any attempt by him to disengage from the war – something Moscow calls “a special military operation” – could be seen as treasonous by officials in Moscow however.

The Defence Ministry has cast the contracts, which it wants signed by July 1, as a step towards greater integration designed to increase the combat potential and effectiveness of such groups within the regular army and spoken of “unified approaches” to military tasks.

The Defence Ministry’s Zvezda TV channel on Tuesday broadcast a report saying that three unnamed volunteer brigades and four volunteer units had signed contracts with the ministry.

Lieutenant-General Vladimir Alekseyev said after the signing ceremony that he was sure other volunteer groups would sign the same contract in the course of the next week.

The Defence Ministry said on Monday it had also signed a contract with the Akhmat group of Chechen special forces, which has often been called the private army of Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of Russia’s Chechnya region.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Reuters reporters; Editing by William Maclean)

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