Vladimir Putin has ordered Wagner fighters to sign an oath of allegiance to the Russian state, amid anger in the mercenary group’s ranks over their leader’s apparent assassination in a plane crash near Moscow.
The decree was published on the Kremlin’s website and signed with immediate effect by Mr Putin, as his spokesperson Dmitry Peskov insisted that claims Prigozhin had been killed on the Russian president’s orders were an “absolute lie”.
The wording of the oath includes a line in which those who take it promise to strictly follow the orders of commanders and senior leaders, as questions hang over the fate of the mercenaries – many of whom had already relocated to Belarus following their mutinous march on Moscow in June.
Russia has opened an investigation into the plane crash, but has not yet officially confirmed the identities of the 10 bodies recovered from the wreckage. However, Mr Putin has appeared to eulogise Prigozhin – using the past tense – as a “talented businessman” who made “serious mistakes”.
Mr Peskov told reporters on Friday that it was unclear how long the investigation would take and insisted it was therefore “impossible to talk about” whether Mr Putin would attend Prigozhin’s funeral, adding: “The only thing I can say is that the president has a rather busy schedule at the moment.”
Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus, said the funeral would be significant. “If Putin wishes to emphasise that Prigozhin died as a traitor, he will ignore it,” he said, adding that the occasion “could strengthen the hostility of a core of Wagner loyalists towards the Kremlin”.
However, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, who appeared to help broker the deal which saw Wagner relocate to Belarus, also sought to insist that the plane crash was “just too rough and unprofessional a job” for his ally Mr Putin to be behind it.
In remarks quoted by state news agency Belta, Mr Lukashenko claimed he had warned Prigozhin during the mutiny that he would “die” if he continued his march on Moscow, to which he replied: “To hell with it – I will die.”
His claims came as Moscow’s three main airports were forced to close temporarily on Saturday morning as local mayors and governors reported drone attacks in Moscow and two regions bordering Ukraine. No injuries were reported.
Meanwhile, Ukraine said two civilians were killed and another wounded as Russian troops shelled a cafe in the suburbs of Kupiansk, where fears are growing of a second Russian takeover less than a year after the city was liberated – and evidence of torture chambers and mass graves uncovered.
At the other end of the frontline, Ukraine was reported to have made further gains near the Zaporizhzhia village of Robotyne, where they have broken through Russia’s heavily mined first line of defence.
The Institute for the Study of War said geolocated combat footage indicated that Ukrainian forces had moved southward by 1.5km to a tree line northeast of Novopokropivka.
The think tank’s Russia analyst George Barros said Kyiv’s troops now appear to be within 2.5km (1.5 miles) of a vast anti-vehicle ditch, which he described as “the next major military engineering obstacle within the Russian layered defence”.
Ukraine also mourned the loss of three Ukrainian pilots killed as two training aircraft collided in the skies some 144km (90 miles) west of Kyiv.
In his nightly address, President Volodymyr Zelensky said he had ordered an investigation into the fatal crash, as he hailed one of the pilots – whose callsign is “Juice”, and who has made several media appearances – as having “greatly helped our state”.
A spokesperson for Ukraine’s air force described the fallen pilot as a “mega talent”, adding: “You can’t even imagine how much he wanted to fly an F-16. But now that American planes are actually on the horizon, he will not fly them.”
Additional reporting by agencies