The second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg witnessed the attendance of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Private Military Group.
Prigozhin appeared smiling and shaking hands with African officials, less than a month after the armed rebellion he led against the Ministry of Defense.
Local reports indicated that hundreds of Wagner fighters arrived in the Central African Republic last week, as the country holds a constitutional referendum on Sunday that may abolish presidential term restrictions.
In another photo, Prigozhin appeared shaking hands with the “African Media Director,” according to a channel affiliated with the Wagner Group on Telegram.
On the eve of the St. Petersburg summit, the Telegram channel claimed Wagner’s responsibility for the coup that took place in Niger on Wednesday.
The head of the Wagner Group didn’t comment on the matter at first, while the photo was widely shared on social media – including channels close to the group.
Russian media have been astonished that Prigozhin, who recently spoke to Putin in the Kremlin, appears to have been rehabilitated.
However, some observers said that Putin, who Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that the Russian president and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko discussed the Wagner group in talks over two days.
Lukashenko, who helped broker a deal to end the Wagner rebellion against top brass in the Russian military last month, flew to St Petersburg on Sunday for talks with Putin.
Peskov said Putin and Lukashenko had not yet reached any new agreements in the latest talks, but added, “Within the framework of close relations, the two presidents are coordinating their positions”.
Peskov added that the agenda included the issue of the Wagner Group, the issue of trade and economic cooperation, the state of the union, and external threats along the borders of our two countries.
After the rebellion against the Russian military leadership, which the world almost considered a military coup, the presence of Wagner is about to end, and despite this, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s army is still alive.
The Central African Republic, the main African country in which Wagner operates, said that Russia will continue its presence in the country, whether through the private armed group or in a different form.
The presidency said that dozens of Wagner fighters had arrived in the country to help secure a constitutional referendum on July 30 that could result in extending the term of President Faustin-Archange Touadera.
Hundreds of Wagner fighters left the Central African Republic days after Prigozhin’s rebellion.
The rebellion raised questions about the future of Wagner’s military and commercial operations in countries including the Central African Republic.
On this regard, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a few weeks ago that the future of the Wagner Group in Africa depends on the concerned countries.
“The fate of these arrangements between African countries and the Wagner Group is first and foremost a matter for the governments of the countries concerned whether they will continue this kind of cooperation or not,” Lavrov said.
For its part, France called on all concerned countries to distance themselves from Wagner, and said it was ready to impose additional penalties for crimes attributed to the group in its theaters of operations.
Washington also announced new sanctions against the group, especially for its activities in the Central African Republic.
On Monday, the United States imposed sanctions on three Malian officials, including the Minister of Defense, after they were accused of helping the Wagner Group to start and expand its activities in the country.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told the Aspen Security Conference a week ago that the Russian private military group, Wagner, was no longer fighting in Ukraine at this time.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella described the presence of Wagner Group in Africa and its wide spread on the continent as a worrying issue.