Russia appears to be trying to take direct control of the private Wagner Group.
Deputy defence minister Nikolai Pankov said on Saturday that units of private soldiers, referred to as ‘volunteer formations’, will be asked to sign contracts directly with the ministry of defence.
It’s believed his vaguely worded statement targets the Wagner Group.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, boss of the group, today released a furious statement saying his troops will boycott the contracts, the BBC reports.
Wagner Group has played a major role in the war in Ukraine, fighting on the side of Russian forces, most notably in the town of Bakhmut.
However Mr Prigozhin is said to have political ambitions of his own and he’s been embroiled in a public dispute with senior figures at the Ministry of Defence for months.
He’s repeatedly accused Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and military chief Valery Gerasimov of incompetence, and of deliberately undersupplying Wagner units.
‘Wagner will not sign any contracts with Shoigu,’ Mr Prigozhin said in response to a request for comment on the defence ministry’s announcement. ‘Shoigu cannot properly manage military formation.’
He insisted that his group was well integrated with the Russian military, but said its effectiveness would be damaged by having to report to the defence minister.
Russian media suggested the new contracts were a move to bring Mr Prigozhin and Wagner Group forces under control.
But the defence ministry said the move was designed to ‘increase the effectiveness’ of Russian units fighting in Ukraine.
A statement from the ministry added: ‘This will give volunteer formations the necessary legal status, create common approaches to the organization of comprehensive support and the fulfilment of their tasks.’
The contracts have a deadline of July 1.
In December, the US estimated that Wagner had around 50,000 troops fighting in Ukraine.
Wagner troops are believed to have been deployed in Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Libya.
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