Wagner’s leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin accused of armed mutiny in challenge to Kremlin
Russia accused the powerful head of the Wagner mercenary group of mounting an armed uprising as the growing animosity between rival Kremlin camps over the war in Ukraine spilled into open conflict.
President Vladimir Putin said Russia was facing “treachery” as he accused Wagner militia group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former ally, of an “attempt at an armed mutiny”. In response, Prigozhin, a former close ally of Putin, said he wouldn’t surrender.
In a sudden and dramatic escalation of the long-running feud between the mercenary leader and Russia’s defence establishment, Prigozhin’s group allegedly took over military offices in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where the defence ministry’s southern military district headquarters are located. Putin threatened the group with “harsh” consequences in a televised address lasting about five minutes.
The unfolding events are the biggest sign of revolt against Putin since he started a war against Ukraine in February of last year, and arguably the biggest challenge to his decades-long leadership.
President Vladimir Putin was getting round-the-clock updates from security officials on their efforts to counter “the attempt at an armed mutiny” by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Tass reported early Saturday morning in Moscow, citing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
The showdown marked the most dramatic escalation in a long-running feud between the mercenary leader and Russia’s defence establishment that’s spiraled into what is the biggest challenge to Putin’s authority since he sent troops into Ukraine 16 months ago.
There was no immediate sign of Wagner fighters mobilising to carry out their outspoken commander’s threat, though Prigozhin claimed to have shot down a helicopter that challenged them. That couldn’t be confirmed. Still, the Kremlin was taking no chances. Authorities tightened security in the capital, including around government buildings, and put riot police on alert, Tass said.
Regulators also blocked access to Google’s news aggregator on major platforms in Russia, according to NetBlocks, an Internet-monitoring group.
In Washington, President Joe Biden has been briefed on the situation while the top two members of the Senate Intelligence said “we are closely monitoring what appears to be a significant internal conflict among Russian forces.”
Tensions erupted Friday when the mercenary chief posted a series of audio messages on his Telegram channel vowing to “punish” Russia’s military leaders for what he alleged attack was a missile attack on a Wagner base and the losses of “tens of thousands” of Russian troops in the war. He accused Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu of overseeing an operation to “destroy” Wagner.
The Defence Ministry denied Prigozhin’s claims. Prosecutors opened a criminal probe into the mercenary chief under the laws banning “armed uprising” and the Federal Security Service said it was seeking to detain him and appealed to his troops not to obey his “criminal orders.”
In an audio message posted early Saturday, Prigozhin said he and his fighters had crossed the border back into Russia and were entering the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. However, there was no independent confirmation of his claims.
“There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why there is lawlessness happening in the country,” Prigozhin said. “Everyone who wants to join us, we need to end this mess.”
Though he threatened to destroy “anyone who will try to resist,” Prigozhin said “this is not a military coup. This is a march of justice.”
Putin had long appeared to tolerate the mercenary’s outbursts, relying on his troops to fight in key parts of the front. But his high profile rankled with the military brass, which regularly sought to undermine and sideline him.
Prigozhin, 62, has for months accused Shoigu and the Defence Ministry of failing to adequately support Wagner forces fighting in Ukraine, particularly during battles for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Prigozhin in May threatened to pull his troops out of the operation if they didn’t get supplies but later backed down.
While it’s not certain yet whether Prigozhin will follow through on his threats, said Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a political consulting firm, “the authorities’ reaction is clear – they’re putting down the mutiny.”
“In my view, this is the end of Wagner,” she said. “The system can’t tolerate his activeness any longer.”
Russia’s top anti-terror body demanded Prigozhin stop illegal actions, Tass said. Two top generals who had in the past worked closely with Wagner publicly appealed to the group’s fighters to ignore Prigozhin’s appeals. The country’s largest social network blocked access to at least one of his audio messages on its platform following orders from regulators, Tass reported.
The main state television channel showed a rare late-night special news update, recounting the official charges against Prigozhin and dismissing his allegations.
Frictions had been rising again in recent weeks after Shoigu set a July 1 deadline for all volunteer units to sign a formal contract with the Defence Ministry — an order so far bluntly rejected by Prigozhin. Putin backed the ministry’s demand during a meeting with Russian journalists and military bloggers last week.
Friday, Prigozhin posted a video on Telegram accusing the Defence Ministry of “deceiving” Russians and Putin about the war as he challenged Kremlin justifications for the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
The mercenary leader has increasingly put himself at odds with the Kremlin narrative about the war, while warning Russians that full mobilization and martial law are necessary to avoid defeat in Ukraine.
In an interview with a local journalist last month, he heaped praise on the performance of Ukraine’s military and scorned the “denazification and demilitarization” goals that Putin and top Kremlin officials used as justification for the war. “How did we demilitarize it? We actually militarized it,” he said. “It’s now one of the strongest armies.”
He also accused Russia’s top defence officials of using the war to enrich themselves and leaving the country unprotected following a border incursion by attackers who crossed from Ukraine. DM
What is Russia’s Wagner Group and why is it accused of mutiny?
Tension between Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russia’s Wagner private militia group, and the nation’s defence establishment exploded in dramatic fashion on Friday. The mercenary chief vowed to punish Russian military leaders, saying Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had orchestrated a missile attack that killed “huge” numbers of his fighters. The Kremlin responded swiftly, denying the attack and accusing Prigozhin of mutiny.
The internal conflict is the biggest test of President Vladimir Putin’s authority since he sent troops into Ukraine 16 months ago. In a short televised address to the nation on Saturday, Putin denounced the rebellion by Wagner forces and its leader as “treason” and promised harsh punishment.
Here’s what you need to know about the Wagner Group, its role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and why its leader is accused of mutiny.
What is the Wagner Group?
Founded by Prigozhin in 2014, Wagner at its peak had about 50,000 mercenary recruits — many of them ex-prisoners — fighting in Ukraine. The US designated the group as a transnational criminal organization earlier this year, and Wagner has been sanctioned by Australia, Canada, Japan, the UK and the European Union. The group has operated for years on battlefields in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, where it’s been accused of committing widespread human rights abuses.
Wagner has murky legal status, and mercenaries are technically illegal in Russia. The group operates independently of the nation’s official armed forces, and recently rebuffed Moscow’s demands that its recruits sign formal contracts with the military.
Who is Prigozhin and what’s his relationship to Putin?
Yevgeny Prigozhin (62) is a Russian businessman and ex-convict who’s been called “Putin’s chef” due to his catering companies’ contracts with Kremlin and longstanding ties with the president. American authorities have said he controlled a troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency to interfere in 2016 US presidential election. In 2022, Prigozhin confirmed he created Wagner after years of denying any connection to the group.
Long considered one of Putin’s right-hand men, Prigozhin has grown increasingly acrimonious toward the Russian president’s military leadership amid mounting deaths of Wagner recruits. Prigozhin for months accused the defence ministry of failing to adequately support his forces, often in provocative videos published on social media. In May, he threatened to pull his troops out of the operation if they didn’t get supplies – particularly ammunition – but later backed down.
Why is Wagner involved in Putin’s invasion?
Putin has appreciated Wagner’s help. As recently as this month, the president acknowledged that Russian forces fighting in Ukraine lack sufficient advanced weapons despite a tripling of arms output. Russia has suffered heavy losses of personnel, many of whom are barely trained and often poorly armed, although exact casualty numbers for the 16-month-long are unclear. Wagner’s forces have been instrumental in Russia’s ground offensive; the group in May took control of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut after more than 220 days of fighting.
What is Wagner’s next move?
Late Friday Prigozhin accused Russia’s defence ministry of a missile attack on a camp of Wagner personnel. In an audio message posted later, Prigozhin said that 25,000 of his men were ready to “end this mess” and fight with the army if they face resistance. The mercenary chief said he and his fighters had entered Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russian near the border with Ukraine and a strategic military command base. The reports have not been independently verified.
How has Russia responded?
The Russian Defence Ministry denied its forces attacked Wagner forces. Prosecutors quickly opened a criminal probe into the mercenary chief under the laws banning “armed mutiny,” and the Federal Security Service said it was seeking to detain him, while appealing to his troops not to obey “criminal orders.”
What is the response from abroad?
So far, watching and waiting. A spokesperson for the European Union said the matter was “an internal Russian issue” that’s being carefully monitored. US President Joe Biden has been briefed on the situation while the top two members of the Senate Intelligence said, “we are closely monitoring what appears to be a significant internal conflict among Russian forces.” Ukraine’s president hasn’t commented so far.
What does this mean for Putin?
The feud has been extremely politically damaging to Putin’s regime, said Matthew Sussex, adjunct associate professor at Griffith University in Australia. That’s likely to have a negative impact on the war effort, which has relied on propaganda to boost support for the invasion. “It will be crippling to the morale of the Russian armed forces and it will be crippling to the morale of Wagner,” he said, adding that if Prigozhin fails in any potential march on Moscow, “there will be enormous purges in the Russian military against those who are suspected of being sympathetic.” The UK defence ministry said the fast-evolving crisis “represents the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times.” DM