Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday vowed to defend the country from an armed rebellion declared by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, which Putin called a”deadly threat” and “stab in the back” to Russia.
“All those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment. The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders,” Putin said in a televised address to the nation.
Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner private military contractor, confirmed Saturday morning that he and his troops reached a key Russian city after crossing the border from Ukraine. Later Saturday, a 5,000-strong Wagner convoy was reported heading toward Moscow.
Prigozhin posted a video of himself in Rostov-on-Don at the Russian military headquarters that oversees the fighting in Ukraine. He claimed that his forces had military facilities in the city under their control, including the airfield. Other videos posted on social media showed military vehicles, including tanks, on the streets outside.
Putin condemned the rebellion at a time when Russia was “fighting the toughest battle for its future” with its war in Ukraine. “The entire military, economic and information machine of the West is waged against us,” Putin said.
In a recorded address, Russian President Vladimir Putin says the Wagner group rebellion is a 'criminal campaign' and an 'equivalent to armed mutiny'.
— Sky News (@SkyNews) June 24, 2023
He called the rebellion a “deadly threat” to Russia and urged the country to unite.
“Any internal turmoil is a deadly threat to our statehood and to us as a nation. This is a blow to Russia and to our people,” Putin said. “This battle, when the fate of our people is being decided, requires the unification of all forces and unity.”
“Extravagant ambitions and personal interests led to treason,” Putin said, referring to Prigozhin, who built his powerbase as a catering contractor to the Kremlin and now runs a private military force.
“All those who consciously stood on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed rebellion, stood on the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, before the law and before our people,” Putin vowed.
He also acknowledged a “difficult” situation was unfolding in Rostov-on-Don.
“There will be decisive measures taken on stabilizing the situation in Rostov-on-Don,” Putin said.”It remains difficult and the work of civil and military authorities in fact is being blocked.”
Prigozhin called himself a patriot.
“Regarding the betrayal of the motherland, the president was deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our homeland,” he said in an audio message on his Telegram channel.
He said his fighters would not turn themselves in at the request of Putin, as “we do not want the country to live on in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”
Prigozhin’s Wagner private military contractor has been fighting alongside Russian troops in Ukraine. It wasn’t immediately clear what his aims were, but the rebellion marks an escalation in Prigozhin’s struggle with Russian military leaders, who he has accused of botching the war in Ukraine and hamstringing his forces in the field.
“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin said.
Prigozhin earlier said his forces faced no resistance from young conscripts at checkpoints as they crossed into Russia from Ukraine, saying his troops “aren’t fighting against children.”
“But we will destroy anyone who stands in our way,” he said in one of a series of angry video and audio recordings posted on social media beginning late Friday. “We are moving forward and will go until the end.”
Further north, on Wagner’s possible route towards Moscow, the governor of Russia’s Voronezh region said the armed forces had launched a “counter-terrorist operation” to suppress the revolt. A fuel depot on Voronezh city was on fire, he said.
Russia’s security services had responded to Prigozhin’s declaration of an armed rebellion by calling for his arrest. In a sign of how seriously the Kremlin took the threat, authorities declared a “counterterrorist regime” in Moscow and its surroundings, allowing restricted freedoms and enhancing security in the capital.
It was not immediately clear how Prigozhin was able to enter the southern Russian city or how many troops he had with him.
Prigozhin alleged that Wagner field camps in Ukraine were struck by rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery fire on orders from the chief of the General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, following a meeting in Rostov with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at which they decided to destroy Wagner. He also said his forces shot down a Russian military helicopter that fired on a civilian convoy, but there was no independent confirmation.
Prigozhin said he had 25,000 troops under his command and would punish Shoigu in an armed rebellion, and urged the army not to offer resistance: “This is not a military coup, but a march of justice.”
While the outcome of the confrontation was still unclear, it appeared likely to further hinder Moscow’s war effort as Kyiv’s forces were probing Russian defenses in the initial stages of a counteroffensive. The dispute, especially if Prigozhin were to prevail, also could have repercussions for Putin and his ability to maintain a united front.
The Wagner forces have played a crucial role in Russia’s war in Ukraine, succeeding in taking the city where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place, Bakhmut. But Prigozhin has increasingly criticized Russia’s military brass, accusing it of incompetence and of starving his troops of weapons and ammunition.
???? Wagner PMC tanks have surrounded the Defence Ministry building in Rostov-on-Don pic.twitter.com/EgcFPbjDi5
— Igor Sushko (@igorsushko) June 24, 2023
On Friday, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee, which is part of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, charged Prigozhin with calling for an armed rebellion, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The FSB urged Wagner’s contract soldiers to arrest Prigozhin and refuse to follow his “criminal and treacherous orders.” It called his statements a “stab in the back to Russian troops” and said they amounted to fomenting armed conflict.
Heavy military trucks and armored vehicles were seen in several parts of central Moscow early Saturday, and soldiers toting assault rifles were deployed outside the main building of the Defense Ministry. The area around the presidential administration near Red Square was blocked, snarling traffic.
But even with the heightened military presence, downtown bars and restaurants were filled with customers. At one club near the headquarters of the FSB, people were dancing in the street near the entrance.
Prigozhin, whose feud with the Defense Ministry dates back years, had refused to comply with a requirement that military contractors sign contracts with the ministry before July 1. In a statement late Friday, he said he was ready to find a compromise but “they have treacherously cheated us.”
“Today they carried out a rocket strike on our rear camps, and a huge number of our comrades got killed,” Prigozhin said. The Defense Ministry denied attacking the Wagner camps.
“The evil embodied by the country’s military leadership must be stopped,” he shouted.
Col. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the deputy commander of the Russian group of forces fighting in Ukraine, urged the Wagner forces to stop any move against the army, saying it would play into the hands of Russia’s enemies, who are “waiting to see the exacerbation of our domestic political situation.”
Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst, predicted this would be the end of Prigozhin.
“Now that the state has actively engaged, there’s no turning back,” she tweeted. “The termination of Prigozhin and Wagner is imminent. The only possibility now is absolute obliteration, with the degree of resistance from the Wagner group being the only variable. Surovikin was dispatched to convince them to surrender. Confrontation seems totally futile.”
Lt. Gen. Vladimir Alexeyev, a top military officer, denounced Prigozhin’s move as “madness” that threatens civil war.
“It’s a stab in the back to the country and the president… Such a provocation could only be staged by enemies of Russia,” he said.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement that Ukraine was concentrating troops for an attack around Bakhmut to take advantage of “Prigozhin’s provocation.” It said Russian artillery and warplanes were firing on Ukrainian forces as they prepared an offensive.
In Washington, the Institute for the Study of War said “the violent overthrow of Putin loyalists like Shoigu and Gerasimov would cause irreparable damage to the stability of Putin’s perceived hold on power.”
At the White House, National Security Council spokesperson Adam Hodge said: “We are monitoring the situation and will be consulting with allies and partners on these developments.”
In Kyiv, a Russian missile attack killed at least two people and injured eight Saturday when falling debris caused a fire on several floors of a 24-story apartment building in a central district, Serhii Popko, the head of the city’s military administration posted on Telegram.
He said more than 20 missiles were detected and destroyed. Video from the scene showed a blaze in the upper floors of the building and the parking lot strewn with ash and debris.