Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Wagner fighters “fought with dignity” in the battle for Bakhmut before denying the group even existed, causing confusion and anger among several Russian commentators.

In an interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant, Putin was asked about his meeting with Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 29 in the Kremlin, days after the mercenary group attempted to topple the country’s military leadership.

He told the reporter a number of Wagner fighters were also at the meeting that totaled 35 participants in all.

“Ordinary Wagner fighters fought with dignity,” Putin said. “The fact that they were drawn into these events is regrettable.”

When asked what they discussed, Putin said: “On the one hand, at a meeting with them, I gave an assessment of what they did on the battlefield, and on the other hand, what they did during the events of June 24th.

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“Third, Prigozhin showed possible options for their further service, including combat use. That’s all.”

The interview then took a bizarre turn when the reporter asked Putin if Wagner would continue to be a combat unit carrying out operations for the Kremlin.

“Wagner does not exist!” he replied, adding: “We don’t have a law on private military organizations! It just does not exist!

“But this question should be discussed in the State Duma in the government. It is not an easy issue.”

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Putin’s comments sparked confusion from some, particularly given the fact Putin himself last month said Wagner had received over a million dollars in funding from the Kremlin.

Also, according to Kommersant, Putin had offered Wagner mercenaries the opportunity to keep fighting at a meeting just days after their failed mutiny, but suggested Yevgeny Prigozhin be moved aside in favor of a different commander.

One person in the online comments to the article, asked: “If Wagner does not exist, then what did the budget money go for?”

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Putin “spat in the face of dead fighters…”

A popular Russian Telegram channel called Kremlin Secrets responded with anger, saying: “Putin publicly spat in the face of thousands of dead [Wagner] fighters.”

The post continued: “PMC Wagner turned out to be almost the only formation that managed to take control of anything in the special operation zone over the past year (we are now talking about Artemovsk [Bakhmut] and Soledar).

“How did the non-existent PMC Wagner capture Rostov and march on Moscow? Thousands of Wagner fighters died for their homeland, probably even tens of thousands.

“And now the president has zeroed in on them. It's spitting on their graves.”

Putin forced to “swallow” unpleasant mess

Russian ultra-nationalist and Putin critic Igor Strelkov, said the interview painted a “funny picture.”

In a post on Telegram, he wrote: “The president in the Kremlin is making a speech to the rebel commanders sitting before him, who just a few days ago forced him to flee the capital of the state he was entrusted with.”

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Strelkov, using a crude sexual reference, said Putin was forced to “swallow” what they said in order to continue looking presidential.

On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov sought to clarify Putin's comments and Russia could grant legal status to private military groups, in what would be a U-turn prompted by the fallout of the Wagner group's short-lived insurrection last month.

"This issue will be considered," Peskov told reporters, adding Wagner's legal status "required further consideration."

Kremlin spin

Last week when confirming the meeting happened, the Kremlin tried to put a much more positive and business-like spin on events then those depcited in the Kommersant interview.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said during the three-and-a-half-hour meeting with Wagner commanders, Putin “offered them alternative options for employment,” including in combat roles.

Wagner commanders “stressed that they are staunch supporters... of the head of state,” Peskov said.

“They also said that they were ready to continue fighting for the motherland.”

Observers see the rebellion as the biggest challenge to Putin’s authority since he came to power.

In the interview to Kommersant published Thursday evening, Putin said he had offered a way forward for Wagner fighters.

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"(The fighters) could all gather in one place and continue to serve," Putin told Kommersant.

They would come under the authority of a commander nicknamed "Sedoy", according to the daily newspaper.

"Nothing would have changed for them, they would have been led by the same person who was their real commander all this time," Putin was cited as saying.

The Russian leader said that "many nodded" but that Prigozhin ultimately refused the offer.

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