Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech on June 26 seeking to persuade as many Wagner fighters and leaders as possible to join the Russian military and continue fighting against Ukraine and to cause individuals most loyal to Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin to self-identify. Putin continued to denounce the organizers of the armed rebellion as traitors. Putin thanked Russian society and the Russian security forces for defending Russia’s sovereignty and expressed gratitude to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for brokering negotiations with the perpetrators of the rebellion. Putin did not name Prigozhin specifically, but Putin’s speech leaves little room for any rapprochement with Prigozhin.
Putin stated that Russia’s true enemy is Ukraine and distinguished between the Wagner Group fighters and the armed rebellion’s organizers, presumably Prigozhin and Prigozhin loyalists, and offered Wagner Group fighters three choices. Putin gave the Wagner Group commanders and fighters space to distance themselves from Prigozhin’s armed rebellion, stating that “we know that the overwhelming majority of Wagner Group fighters and commanders are also Russian patriots, devoted to their people and state.” Putin stated that Wagner fighters who seek to continue “serving Russia” can sign a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) or other Russian security services, retire and go home, or go to Belarus (presumably to be with Prigozhin). Putin praised the work of Wagner Group commanders likely in an effort to retain them as the Wagner Group integrates into the MoD. The MoD’s ability to retain as many of Wagner’s current commanders as possible during the integration and subordination process is likely critical to maintaining the Wagner Group’s combat effectiveness and morale.
The Kremlin indicated that Russia aims to retain Wagner forces in order to sustain its operations in Ukraine and other international engagements. Putin could have arrested the Wagner commanders for treason but instead offered to forgive and integrate Wagner forces – which indicates his need for trained and effective manpower. Putin is also likely attempting to finalize the Russian MoD-initiated formalization effort. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reassured his foreign counterparts on June 26 that Wagner will continue operations in Mali and the Central African Republic. Putin’s and Lavrov’s rhetoric supports an ongoing domestic information campaign in Russia to forgive and retain Wagner fighters. Local Russian sources also reported that Wagner employees continue to recruit personnel in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, and Tyumen.
Some Wagner Group forces may follow Prigozhin to Belarus. Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported on June 26 that Belarusian authorities are constructing several new camps to house the Wagner Group fighters in Belarus and that the construction of a 24,000 square kilometer base for 8,000 Wagner Group fighters is already underway in Asipovichy, Mogilev Oblast. The location of a Wagner Group base in Asipovichy does not pose an immediate threat against Ukraine; Asipovichy is about 200 kilometers from Belarus’ international border with Ukraine, and the establishment of new Wagner Group bases in Gomel or Brest oblasts on the border with Ukraine would be much more alarming. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko may seek to use the Prigozhin and Wagner Group fighters to balance against a longstanding Russian effort to establish a permanent military presence in Belarus, though the extent to which Lukashenko can successfully co-opt Prigozhin or refuse a potential Russian extradition demand for Prigozhin or Wagner fighters in Belarus remains unclear. Prigozhin’s personal whereabouts remain unclear as of June 26, though some unconfirmed reports suggest that he is in the “Green City Hotel” in western Minsk City.
Belarus will not offer Prigozhin or Wagner fighters a true haven if the Kremlin pressures Belarus, however. Putin may be presenting Belarus as a haven for Wagner fighters as a trap. The Kremlin will likely regard the Wagner Group personnel who follow Prigozhin to Belarus as traitors whether or not it takes immediate action against them. Putin notably stated in his June 26 speech that Wagner Group fighters are permitted to go to Belarus and that Putin will keep his unspecified “promise” about Wagner fighters who choose to do so. Putin’s acknowledgement that he made a personal promise, presumably that Wagner personnel who went to Belarus would be safe there, was remarkable. The long-term value of that promise, Putin’s speech notwithstanding, is questionable. Wagner Group personnel in Belarus are unlikely to remain safe from Russian extradition orders if Putin reneges and charges them with treason. Lukashenko previously turned over 33 Belarusian-detained Wagner personnel to Moscow after using them as leverage against the Kremlin in 2020, and there is no apparent reason why he would not do so again.
Prigozhin attempted to downplay his armed rebellion on June 26 in his first statement since the rebellion failed, likely in an attempt to shield himself from accusations of attempting a coup against Putin. Prigozhin stated that Wagner forces did not intend to overthrow the government, but instead attempted to raise awareness about the Russian MoD’s efforts to destroy Wagner forces. Prigozhin accused the Russian MoD of first attempting to dissolve the Wagner PMC on July 1 via its formalization order and then of striking Wagner’s rear areas on June 23. Prigozhin claimed that the Wagner PMC sought to demonstratively turn in their military equipment to the Russian Southern Military District (SMD) on June 30 to appease the Russian MoD’s inventorization requirements until the Russian MoD struck a Wagner camp. Prigozhin reiterated that the Wagner PMC decided to stop its advance 200 kilometers south of Moscow because Wagner realized that advancing further would result in casualties among Wagner and Russian security forces. Prigozhin acknowledged that Lukashenko extended his assistance to help the Wagner PMC legally continue operating as Wagner forces and decided to return to their training camps.
Prigozhin’s efforts to convince Putin of his loyalty clearly failed as Putin characterized the armed rebellion as a blackmail attempt and denounced its organizers as traitors following Prigozhin’s statement. Putin stated that Russian society showed that “any blackmail, any attempt to stage domestic turmoil is doomed to fail.” Putin’s use of the word “blackmail” indicates that Putin perceived that Prigozhin was attempting to coerce him into accepting Prigozhin’s demands rather than intending to directly attack the Kremlin. ISW previously assessed that Prigozhin likely sought to blackmail Putin into firing Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov rather than intending to stage a coup in Moscow. Both Putin and Prigozhin sought to reject the framing of the rebellion as a coup, with Putin attempting to preserve the image of the solidity of his regime. Putin also stated that “organizers of the armed rebellion” deliberately staged the rebellion and misled Wagner forces into criminal action. Putin emphasized that Russian forces and officials conducted all necessary measures to avoid bloodshed under his “direct orders,” which undermines Prigozhin’s claims that Wagner decided to deescalate the situation. Putin added that the armed rebellion could have benefited Ukraine and the West, and Lavrov earlier announced that Russia is investigating whether Western intelligence were involved in the rebellion. The Kremlin may be setting information conditions to try Prigozhin and his loyal subordinates as traitors conspiring with external enemies, and such criminal charges would force Lukashenko to surrender Prigozhin and Wagner forces regardless of these Lukashenko-brokered negotiations.
The Kremlin is likely attempting to signal that Shoigu will maintain his position for now and that Putin will not give into Prigozhin’s blackmail attempt. The Russian MoD reported that Shoigu visited an unspecified forward command post of the Russian Western Group of Forces in Ukraine on June 26 – his first public appearance since Prigozhin’s drive on Rostov-on-Don and Moscow. The Russian MoD previously identified that the Western Group of Forces operates on the Kupyansk-Svatove line in Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts. Shoigu reportedly met with Western Group of Forces commander Colonel General Yevgeny Nikiforov and tasked the grouping with preventing Ukrainian advances on the frontline. Shoigu notably did not visit the SMD headquarters in Rostov-on-Don after Wagner’s occupation of the city ended and or otherwise connect with SMD forces in southern Ukraine after the armed rebellion concluded. It is currently unclear if the Kremlin will replace Shoigu and Gerasimov, but it is unlikely that the Kremlin would make such drastic command changes immediately since doing so would seem to be conceding to Prigozhin’s demands. ISW has previously assessed that Putin values loyalty, and Shoigu and Gerasimov have demonstrated their allegiance to Putin.
Russian sources, however, continued to speculate about Russian military command changes following Prigozhin’s armed rebellion. Russian milbloggers began a campaign promoting Tula Oblast Governor Alexei Dyumin to replace Shoigu as Russian defense minister by amplifying a video in which Dyumin visited a Tula volunteer battalion on June 25. Other milbloggers claimed that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) is currently investigating Dyumin’s connection to Prigozhin and Wagner’s reported access to Pantsir missile systems. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger suggested that the Kremlin may reshuffle Head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy, Chief of the Russian Armed Forces’ Main Combat Training Directorate Lieutenant General Ivan Buvaltsev, and Head of the General Staff’s Main Organizational and Mobilization Directorate Colonel General Yevgeny Burdinsky soon. The milblogger claimed that the Kremlin may replace Burdinsky for his inability to account for convicts within “Storm Z” units who were then recruited by other armed formations, and could replace Rudskoy for failing to implement a Kharkiv operational plan – the objectives of which are unknown.
The future of the Wagner Group is unclear, but it will likely not include Yevgeny Prigozhin and may not continue to exist as a distinct or unitary entity. Putin’s appeal to Wagner commanders and servicemen indicates that the Kremlin aims to lure Wagner forces to the Russian MoD, but it is unclear how the Kremlin will organize Wagner into its military structure. The Kremlin may break up Wagner forces operating in Ukraine to reinforce existing military formations, or get Wagner forces to sign up for Russian MoD-affiliated PMCs. The Russian MoD has previously lied to volunteers about keeping their formations together to ensure that recruits sign military contracts, after which the Russian military command dissolved the units. The Kremlin may choose to keep the Wagner entity solely to sustain operations in Africa or the Middle East and break up Wagner’s group of forces in Ukraine. Such scenarios may impact Wagner forces’ morale and combat effectiveness. Prigozhin claimed that Wagner commanders and personnel categorically opposed Wagner’s subordination under the Russian MoD and noted that the Russian military command would misuse experienced Wagner fighters as cannon fodder. Wagner forces, who had previously enjoyed their autonomy, will likely face hostility from Russian military commanders in retaliation for Wagner’s efforts to undermine regular forces. The Telegraph, citing British special services, reported that Russian special forces threatened to harm the families of Wagner commanders during the armed rebellion, which may further trigger tensions and low morale.
Putin’s June 26 speech likely signaled a decisive break between Prigozhin and Putin, and it is likely that the Kremlin will attempt to replace the Wagner leader to distance the PMC from Prigozhin’s betrayal – if the Kremlin decides to keep Wagner as a distinct entity. The Kremlin has not yet made any announcements regarding Wagner’s fate at the time of this publication. Some Russian sources began to mention Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin even though Utkin has remained out of the public eye throughout Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Commander of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) “Vostok” Battalion Alexander Khodakovsky, for example, recalled a time when Utkin saved a Wagner employee from Prigozhin and his henchmen’s beatings.
Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations and advanced on at least two sectors of the front as of June 26. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated that Ukrainian forces cleared a Russian bridgehead across the Siverskyi-Donets Donbas canal in the Bakhmut direction, and Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces advanced southwest of Bakhmut. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar, other Ukrainian officials, and geolocated footage confirmed that Ukrainian forces captured Rivnopil near the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts as of June 26. Russian sources additionally confirmed that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblast administrative border area. The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces repelled Ukrainian ground attacks near Robotyne, south of Orikhiv in western Zaporizhia Oblast. Ukrainian Tavriisk Group of Forces Spokesperson Colonel Valeriy Shershen stated that Ukrainian forces advanced one and a half kilometers in an unspecified area of the Tavriisk (Zaporizhia) direction. Malyar stated that Ukrainian forces have recaptured 130 square kilometers of territory in southern Ukraine since the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The UK MoD indicated on June 26 that Russian forces likely lack operational-level reserves that could reinforce against simultaneous Ukrainian threats on multiple areas of the front hundreds of kilometers from each other, chiefly Bakhmut and southern Ukraine.
Russian forces conducted a missile and drone strike on Ukraine on the night of June 25 to 26. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces shot down two of three Russian Kalibr cruise missiles and seven of eight Shahed 131 or 136 drones. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported that one missile struck a storage facility in Odesa Oblast. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Natalia Humenyuk reported that strong storms over the Black Sea made it difficult for Ukrainian air defenses to intercept targets.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech on June 26 seeking to persuade as many Wagner fighters and leaders as possible to join the Russian military and continue fighting against Ukraine and to cause individuals most loyal to Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin to self-identify.
- The Kremlin indicated that Russia aims to retain Wagner forces to sustain its operations in Ukraine and other international engagements.
- Prigozhin attempted to downplay his armed rebellion on June 26 in his first statement since the rebellion failed, likely in an attempt to shield himself from accusations of attempting a coup against Putin.
- Prigozhin’s efforts to convince Putin of his loyalty clearly failed as Putin characterized the armed rebellion as a blackmail attempt and denounced its organizers as traitors following Prigozhin’s statement.
- The Kremlin is likely attempting to signal that Shoigu will maintain his position for now and that Putin will not give into Prigozhin’s blackmail attempt.
- The future of the Wagner Group is unclear, but it will likely not include Yevgeny Prigozhin and may not continue to exist as a distinct or unitary entity.
- Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations and advanced on at least two sectors of the front as of June 26.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northwest of Svatove and south of Kreminna.
- Ukrainian and Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut, and Ukrainian forces reportedly advanced as of June 26.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
- Ukrainian and Russian forces continued to skirmish in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia oblasts administrative border area and Ukrainian forces made gains as of June 26.
- Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued limited ground attacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Geolocated footage confirmed that Ukrainian forces maintain positions near the Antonivsky Bridge in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast as of June 26.
- The Russian State Duma passed a law prohibiting private military companies (PMCs) from recruiting prisoners.