'We will destroy anyone who stands in our way'

Rebellious Wagner leader says he’s taken key military sites in Russian city

Video shows mercenaries on streets of Rostov-on-Don at the Russian military HQ that oversees fighting in Ukraine; Prigozhin urges Russians not to believe news on state TV

In this handout photo taken from video released by Prigozhin Press Service, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, records his video addresses in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023.  (Prigozhin Press Service via AP)
In this handout photo taken from video released by Prigozhin Press Service, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, records his video addresses in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023. (Prigozhin Press Service via AP)

The owner of the Wagner private military contractor who called for an armed rebellion aimed at ousting Russia’s defense minister confirmed Saturday morning that he and his troops have reached a key Russian city after crossing the border from Ukraine.

Yevgeny 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.

Prigozhin said early Saturday that his forces had crossed into Russia from Ukraine and had reached Rostov, adding that they faced no resistance from young conscripts at checkpoints and that his forces “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.”

Russia’s military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don are a key logistical base for its offensive in Ukraine.

“We are inside the [army] headquarters, it is 7:30 am [0430 GMT],” Prigozhin said in a video on Telegram. “Military sites in Rostov, including an aerodrome, are under control,” he added.

He said that planes taking part in the Ukraine offensive “are leaving as normal” from the airfield.

“We took [the aerodrome] under control so that the attack aviation did not strike us, but strike Ukrainians,” Prigozhin said.

He called on Russians not to believe what they are being told on state television.

“When they tell you that PMC Wagner interfered with work and that’s why something on the front collapsed… Things on the front collapsed not for this reason,” he said, addressing Russians.

“A huge amount of territory is lost. Soldiers have been killed, three, four times more than what it says in documents shown to the top [leadership].”

Prigozhin claimed Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov “ran away from here when he found out that we are approaching the building.”

Authorities in Rostov have urged residents to stay at home.

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, security was heightened in Moscow and in Rostov-on-Don. It was not immediately clear how he was able to enter the southern Russian city or how many troops he had with him.

Prigozhin alleged that the chief of the Gerasimov, scrambled warplanes to strike Wagner’s convoys, which were driving alongside ordinary vehicles. He also said his forces shot down a Russian military helicopter that fired on a civilian convoy, but there was no independent confirmation.

He said Wagner field camps in Ukraine were struck by rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery fire on orders from Gerasimov, following a meeting in Rostov with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at which they decided to destroy Wagner.

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 President Vladimir 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.

In this handout image taken from a video released by Prigozhin Press Service on Friday, May 5, 2023, head of Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin stands in front of multiple bodies lying on the ground in an unknown location. (Prigozhin Press Service via AP)

On Friday, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee, which is part of the Federal Security Services, 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.

Putin was informed about the situation and “all the necessary measures were being taken,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. On Saturday morning he added that Putin would address the nation “shortly.”

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.

Moscow’s mayor announced Saturday morning that counterterrorism measures were underway, including increased control of roads and possible restrictions on mass gatherings.

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,” he 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.”

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