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President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of Russia descending into civil war on Saturday after embittered warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin seized key parts of the country’s south – including the big strategic city of Rostov-on-Don – and threatened to march about Moscow.
Prigozhin said he took control of Rostov – a crucial Kremlin war command center in Ukraine, with a population of more than 1 million – without a fight. In response, Putin lashed out at Prigozhin’s « betrayal » and promised to « neutralize » the threat posed by his renegade Wagner mercenary army.
In five and a half minutes address To the nation on Saturday morning, the president denounced the mutiny as « a stab in the back of our nation and our people. » Without naming Prigozhin, he said: « We are dealing with treason. »
The Russian president said the uprising was “exactly the kind of blow that was dealt Russia in 1917, when the country fought in World War I, but victory was stolen from it. Intrigues, quarrels, politics behind the backs of the army and the people turned into the greatest shock – the destruction of the army and the collapse of the state, the loss of vast territories. Finally, the tragedy of the civil war.
Even the British Ministry of Defense called the Prigozhin mutiny « the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times ».
In a statement on Saturday morning, the British government indicated that Prigozhin’s forces were moving through the territory around Voronezh, about 500 kilometers south of Moscow and about 500 kilometers north of Rostov, « almost certainly aiming to reach Fly ». Russian authorities said they had closed the main highway running south from Moscow in an attempt to block any advance by Prigozhin’s mutineers.
In both Voronezh and Rostov, authorities have urged people to stay at home, while Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has urged Russians to pray for Putin.
The insurgency dramatically ups the ante in Moscow’s 16-month war against Ukraine and creates a major headache for Putin, even as Ukrainian forces look for opportunities to break through Russian defensive lines in a long-awaited counter-offensive.
« With very limited evidence of fighting between Wagner and Russian security forces, some have probably remained passive, acquiescing to Wagner, » the British Defense Ministry statement said. « In the coming hours, the loyalty of the Russian security forces, and especially the Russian National Guard, will be the key to the evolution of the crisis. »
Admitting that the situation remains « difficult » in Rostov, a clearly angry Putin has called on Wagner’s forces to abandon their commander. « I ask those who are drawn into this crime not to make the inimitable fatal and tragic mistake, to make the only right choice: to stop participating in criminal actions, » he said.
In a sign that talk of civil war was anything but rhetorical, Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov – one of Putin’s staunchest supporters in the war against Ukraine – said he was taking the fight to Prigozhin, noting that his men had already been sent to retake control of Russian territory from the Wagner group. « The rebellion must be crushed, and if that requires tough measures, then we are ready! »
head of putin
Nicknamed « Putin’s chef » – because he rose to fame running caterers for the Russian government – Prigozhin has become one of the most prominent faces in Russia’s war against Ukraine, but has become an increasingly virulent critic of Putin’s military command. Moscow, which it has repeatedly accused of incompetence and under-resourced troops on the front lines. A notoriously brutal and unpredictable figure, Prigozhin drew much of his strength from prisons.
Overnight, Prigozhin said in a series of short voicemails posted on social media that he was leading a « march of justice » and not a military coup, and suggested 25,000 of his men were en route to Moscow to oust the military leadership of Russia – and they were ready to die for the cause.
« We are at personnel headquarters, it is 7:30 in the morning, » Prigozhin said in a video statement posted on his Telegram channel. « Military objects in Rostov are under control, including the airport. »
According to reports and social media, Wagner’s forces met little resistance as they traveled the short distance from the Ukrainian border to the city, the operational center of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. The push turned Prigozhin’s increasingly furious tirades against the Kremlin over the past 24 hours into a gritty action that exposed the vulnerability of Russia’s rear.
« The chief of staff ran away as soon as he found we were approaching the building, » Prigozhin said, referring to Russian Armed Forces chief of staff Valery Gerasimov, who was reportedly recently in the area.
Prigozhin said personnel headquarters in Rostov functioned normally. “Everything we did and took control of was so that the offensive aviation did not hit us, but hit the Ukrainians,” he said. The 1:43 minute video statement was filmed in the corner of a rain-soaked courtyard as armed troops roamed in the background.
The big question now is how much support Prigozhin might have. Wagner’s recruitment posters had already been taken down in several cities. Andrei Kolesnikov, senior member of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, tweeted Prigozhin was unlikely to win the support of Russia’s key power players.
“The indifference of the mass man on whom Putin’s regime rests will not turn against him. But an indifferent person will not defend him either. Much depends on the loyalty of the siloviki and elites in general. But they don’t like Prigozhin, it’s dangerous for them.
Meanwhile, an unverified video purported to show Prigozhin taking control of military installations in Rostov, where he held tense talks with Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov. Chief Wagner appeared to threaten to blockade the city and march on Moscow if his demands were not met.
According to military bloggers and Prigozhin himself, Wagner’s troops shot down a Russian Mi-35 helicopter during the night. Videos posted on social media overnight had shown helicopters hovering over Rostov.
Prominent Russian pro-war blogger Igor Girkin also posted clip showing long columns of military vehicles, which he said belonged to Wagner’s forces, snaking through the Voronezh region.
Appealing directly to the Russian military and people, Prigozhin said the Kremlin had lied to them about the toll of the war. A huge amount of territory has been lost, he said. Three to four times as many men were being killed as reported at the top; and casualties — killed, missing, wounded and unable to fight due to lack of munitions or leadership — reached 1,000 on some days, he said.
Russia’s FSB spy service has opened a criminal investigation for staging an armed insurrection, and according to state mediaCounter-terrorism operations have been launched in Moscow, the surrounding region and Voronezh Oblast, which is about halfway along the 1,100-kilometer road from Rostov to the Russian capital.
This story is developing.