Vladimir Putin is facing a major military crisis after Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin declared war on Moscow’s defense ministry, claiming Kremlin officials had killed thousands of his soldiers.
In a declaration Released on Friday evening, the FSB security agency said it had « lawfully and reasonably instituted a criminal case » against the Wagner Group warlord « for organizing an armed insurrection ».
Prigozhin, meanwhile, said he had withdrawn his troops from Ukraine and into Rostov Russia, and vowed: « If anyone gets in our way, we will destroy everything! »
POLITICO could not verify the claim that Wagner’s troops had entered Rostov, and Prigozhin presented no evidence of the massive troop movements he claimed were underway.
The feud between Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry has been building for months, but now it seems to have erupted.
What we know so far
- The Russian security agency FSB said it had opened a criminal case against Prigozhin « for organizing an armed insurrection ».
- Prigozhin said his troops moved to Rostov in Russia and vowed: « If anyone gets in our way, we will destroy everything! »
- The Rostov governor has warned residents to stay indoors.
- The Russian Defense Ministry has warned that Ukrainian forces are « taking advantage of Prigozhin’s provocation » on the front line around Bakhmut.
- Prigozhin says around 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the war against Ukraine.
- Putin has been briefed on the situation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to Russian state media.
- Prigozhin’s move comes after he said 2,000 Wagner men had been killed in attacks ordered by Russia’s Defense Ministry.
According to Russian state media, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin was aware of the rapidly evolving situation and « all necessary measures have been taken ».
« Prigozhin’s statements and actions are actually calls for the start of an armed civil conflict on the territory of Russia and are a ‘stab in the back’ for the Russian military, » officials added.
The move comes after Prigozhin accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu concealed « colossal » battlefield failures from Putin, claiming 2,000 Wagner men were killed as a result of attacks ordered by the Russian Defense Ministry.
In a later Telegram statement, Prigozhin called Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the Russian Armed Forces Chief of Staff and overall commander of the war against Ukraine, « criminals » who had « killed some 100,000 Russian soldiers. »
In response to Prigozhin’s accusations, Moscow issued a strong denial, and a motorcade of generals lined up to urge the Wagner fighters to stand down.
In a video appeal, Lieutenant General Vladimir Alekseev, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, She said Prigozhin has no authority to give orders. “This is a coup,” he insisted, “come to your senses!”
Meanwhile, the deputy commander of Russian forces in Ukraine Sergei Surovikin — known as “General Armageddon” — solicited Wagner to stand his ground and not turn against his allies. « Stop the columns, bring them back to their permanent deployment points, » he pleaded.
The Russian Defense Ministry has released a declaration in the early hours of Saturday morning, warning that Ukrainian forces are « taking advantage of Prigozhin’s provocation » on the front line around the key battlefield city of Bakhmut, which Wagner’s troops had previously occupied. The leaders of Moscow also said that the 35th and 36th brigades of the Marine Corps of Ukraine « are on the starting line for offensive operations ».
In a tweets in the early hours of Saturday, the Ukrainian defense ministry said: « We are watching. »
Roll the dice
On Friday, the Wagner Group founder questioned Moscow’s motivation for launching its invasion of Ukraine, saying that « Ukraine’s armed forces would not attack Russia with NATO » and that « the war was needed to make a group of assholes triumph and show how strong they are as an army.
In a bombastic video statement he called Russia’s military leadership « evil » and vowed to march for « justice, » threatening anyone who stood in his way.
In a second Message released on his Telegram channel in the early hours of Saturday morning, Prigozhin said « we are currently entering Rostov », Russia, adding that conscripts had been sent to fend off Wagner group fighters. However, he went on to say, those guarding the border had greeted his troops with open arms.
« If anyone gets in our way, we will destroy everything! » Prigozhin swore.
In a send on his Telegram account, Vasily Golubev, governor of the Rostov region, said: “The current situation requires the maximum concentration of all forces to maintain order. Law enforcement agencies are doing everything necessary to ensure the safety of residents in the area. I ask everyone to remain calm and not to leave the house unnecessarily ».
Russian state media She said Checkpoints have been erected in Rostov-on-Don near the southern border with Ukraine. At the same time, unnamed officials told the news agency TAX that security has been tightened in Moscow with units of the National Guard deployed to keep the peace. Not verified video purport to show armored vehicles parked on the streets of the capital.
Even Russian state media She said Moscow’s Red Square will be closed to the public on Saturday, claiming the reason for the closure was because an event was to be held there.
Speaking to POLITICO, Colonel Philip Ingram, a former British military intelligence officer and former NATO planner, said it was « too early to tell » whether a coup was afoot. « Clearly Moscow is concerned and has activated a defense plan – Prigozhin is trying to push something focused on Shoigu, but it could be many things. »
According to Ian Garner, an expert on Russia and the author of a new book on the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, Chief Wagner has gone too far. “Prigozhin rolled the dice, and now the state will eliminate him forever,” he said.
“I suspect Prigozhin’s chances of launching a successful coup are slim. The state can offer everything it does – money, freedom, prestige – without him. Why should Wagner’s fighters side with Prigozhin in a battle to the death? Garner said.
Death knell for Wagner
The chaos amounts to a death knell for the Wagner group, which has been active not only in Ukraine but also in Africa, according to one analyst.
« Whatever it is, it’s definitely the dismantling of Wagner, » Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst and founder of R-Politik consultancy, said on her Telegram channel.
“This is the end of Prigozhin and the end of Wagner. An important moment: many within the elite reproach Putin that things have gotten to this point and that the president has not reacted sooner. That’s why this whole story is a blow to Putin as well. »
In his increasingly rampant voice memos on Telegram, Prigozhin too claimed a Russian military helicopter had opened fire on a convoy of his troops and Wagner had shot it down.
US National Security Council spokesman on Russia Adam Hodge said: « We are monitoring the situation and will consult with allies and partners on these developments. »
Meanwhile, the Kremlin released a pre-recorded video of President Putin in honor of Youth Day.
This story is being updated.