Russian strongman Yevgeny Prigozhin said he was leading his Wagner forces in Russia after he was accused of orchestrating an “armed coup” in retaliation for what he claimed was an air strike against his own paramilitary forces.
The FSB, Russia’s main security service, opened a criminal case against the founder of the notorious Wagner mercenary group for leading the country’s first coup attempt in three decades as Prigozhin promised a “march of justice” against the army. He also claimed to have shot down a Russian helicopter.
The alleged coup attempt began on Friday evening, when Prigozhin’s press team posted a voice memo in which he said airstrikes had killed “a huge number” of fighters and that Wagner would “respond to this atrocity” in his most ferocious outburst, against his country’s military leadership today. until.
As the FSB moved to arrest him, armored vehicles were spotted on the streets of Moscow, where law enforcement authorities told state newswire Tass that “all important facilities, state authorities and transport infrastructure have been taken under enhanced security”.
In a voice memo posted at 2 a.m. Moscow time, Prigozhin said Wagner had left Ukraine and was heading to Rostov, a large city in southern Russia near the front line.
“Now we have crossed all the border points with Ukraine. The border guards welcomed us and hugged our fighters. Now we are entering Rostov,” he said. “If anyone gets in our way, we will destroy everything!”
At 3:45 a.m. Moscow time, Prigozhin claimed that Wagner shot down a Russian army helicopter after allegedly firing on civilians. There was no immediate evidence to verify his claim.
Details so far have been largely limited to voice memos posted by Prigozhin, the owner of the notorious troll farm, and official statements by Russian authorities.
Although both sides have provided little evidence for their claims, Russia’s unusual reaction shows that the Kremlin is taking the potential threat seriously.
State television, which normally studiously avoids mentioning the combatant by name, carried an emergency broadcast to summarize the news, while two senior generals who rarely speak publicly urged Wagner’s fighters to stand down.
The chaos follows months of public fighting between Wagner and the military as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine continues.
Prigozhin claimed that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu secretly ordered the alleged airstrikes on Wagner fighters, then “ran away like a dog to avoid explaining why he sent helicopters to destroy our boys”.
“The evil brought about by the country’s military leadership must be stopped. Those who destroyed our boys today and ruined the lives of thousands of our soldiers will be punished,” Prigozhin said.
“There are 25,000 of us, and we are going to solve why the country is so messed up,” he added.
Prigozhin claimed to have the support of “the vast majority of soldiers” in the regular armed forces, although he provided no evidence of this.
Russia’s Defense Ministry dismissed their claims of the airstrikes as “information provocations” and said Ukraine’s army “took advantage of Prigozhin’s provocation” to strike along the front lines amid its counterattack.
“Prygozhin’s statements and actions amount to a call to launch an armed civil conflict on Russian territory and a ‘stab in the back’ to Russian troops fighting pro-fascist Ukrainian forces,” the FSB said, according to state newswire RIA Novosti.
Prigozhin posed a “danger of increasing immunity”, it added, urging people “not to make irreversible mistakes, to stop all use of force against the Russian people, to disobey Prigozhin’s criminal and treasonous orders, and to take measures to detain take. him”.
The Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office confirmed that Prigozhin was charged with “organizing an armed uprising”, which carries a prison sentence of 12 to 20 years.
Prigozhin’s tyranny appears to mark the collapse of a hybrid system in which a patchwork of rival security forces fought in Ukraine, often at cross purposes.
Sergei Surovykin, the deputy commander of Russia’s invasion force and a general considered close to Wagner, urged the group’s fighters not to obey Prigozhin’s orders in a video posted by a pro-war blogger.
“The enemy is just waiting for our domestic political situation to swell. Don’t play into the enemy’s hands in this difficult time for the country!” said Surovykin, dressed in military fatigues and holding an assault rifle, staring into the camera.
Another senior general, Vladimir Alekseyev, said in a separate video posted by the same blogger: “This is a stab in the back of the country and the president. Only the President has the right to appoint the military leadership, and you are trying to attack his authority. This is a state coup. Come to your senses!”
There was no immediate response from Vladimir Putin, whose office posted a pre-recorded video of the Russian president congratulating school leavers at midnight.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the country’s security agencies were “informing the president around the clock about the measures they are taking to implement his earlier orders”.
US officials are monitoring the situation and will “consult with allies and partners on these developments,” according to a statement from National Security Council spokesman Adam Hodge.
Earlier on Friday, Prigozhin, in a separate crack, accused the Russian military of tricking Putin into invading Ukraine. Prigozhin, who had emerged as one of the decisive leaders of Russia’s offensive since Wagner had played a leading role on the front lines, had been embroiled in a months-long feud with Shoigu, whom Prigozhin accused of sabotaging the war effort in collaboration with Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the general staff.
Prigozhin said Russia’s Defense Ministry made false pretenses to lure Putin into invading Ukraine and said Moscow could have avoided war altogether. He claimed that Russia faced no immediate threat from Ukraine when Putin launched his full-scale invasion last year, and accused top military officials of deceiving the president for their own personal gain.
In a country where “defaming the armed forces” is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, Prigozhin, who has known Putin since their days in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, was widely believed to have the Russian president’s approval for the attacks on him. the army
Prigozhin’s fury over the war’s failures has largely absolved Putin himself or the FSB security service, which played a more prominent role in planning the invasion than the military.
Putin admitted earlier this month that he had personally pardoned criminals so they could be freed to fight in Ukraine – a recruitment technique pioneered by Prigozhin when he raised an army of prisoners to fight in the “meat grinder” of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.
After Russia captured the city last month, however, Putin backed Shoigu’s efforts to bring irregular units like Wagner under army control. From then on, Wagner’s troops were absent from the front line, and Prigozhin doubted whether they would return.
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington