Putin tightens control over Wagner mercenaries

In a move to assert greater control over Wagner and other Russian private military contractors, President Vladimir Putin has issued a decree requiring all employees to swear allegiance to the Russian state. The decree, signed on Friday, applies to individuals participating in military activities in Ukraine and serving in territorial defence units. It comes shortly after the presumed deaths of Wagner leaders in a plane crash, prompting experts to speculate that Putin is seeking to minimize the risk of future crises. The oath of allegiance includes a commitment to follow senior leaders’ orders and is seen as a covert message to military intelligence to locate and prosecute Wagner fighters.

The decree has significant implications for the Wagner fighters who are currently without a clear leader. Petro Burkovskyi, the Executive Director of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, suggests that the oath serves as a clear signal to these fighters: comply or face imprisonment. While some fighters may choose to take the oath to retain their weapons, it remains uncertain how loyal supporters of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who refuse to take the oath, will react in the long term.

The Russian defence ministry had previously given mercenary groups until 1 July to sign army contracts, which Prigozhin chose to reject. Consequently, Putin’s support of the ministry’s contract scheme represents a significant blow to the alliance between Putin and Prigozhin. However, experts believe that the Russian army views the trained and experienced Wagner fighters as valuable assets, regardless of their allegiance.

Despite the internal dynamics within the Wagner Group, recent drone attacks on Moscow and the Belgorod regions have raised security concerns. Russian officials confirmed that all attacks were successfully repelled, with no casualties or damages reported. Moscow attributed the attacks to Ukraine, although Kyiv has not yet claimed responsibility. In a separate incident, Russia shelled a Ukrainian village near Kupiansk, resulting in casualties and damage to a cafe.

The future of Wagner remains uncertain following the reported death of Yevgeny Prigozhin. As investigations into the plane crash continue, the tight control imposed by Putin through the oath of allegiance may have both short-term effectiveness and potential long-term challenges. While some fighters may comply to retain special treatment under Putin’s orders, the loyalty of Prigozhin’s supporters within Wagner could pose difficulties for Putin in the future.