Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian military contractor Wagner Group, has rejected accusations of “treason” by President Vladimir Putin after his troops crossed crossed from Ukraine into the Russian border city of Rostov-on-Don, vowing to fight anyone who tried to stop them.
On Saturday, Prigozhin posted an audio message on the social media app Telegram, claiming his forces had taken control of military facilities in the city, including the airfield.
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Videos and pictures posted online, including by Russia’s TASS news agency, showed armed men surrounding administrative buildings in Rostov and tanks deployed in the city centre.
“All of us are ready to die. All 25,000, and then another 25,000,” he said, after earlier accusing the Russian top brass of having launched an attack on their camps in Ukraine, where the mercenaries are fighting on behalf of Moscow.
“We are dying for the Russian people.”
In an emergency televised address on Saturday, Putin said that the “armed mutiny” by Wagner amounted to “treason” and that anyone who had taken up arms against the Russian military would be punished.
He added that he would do everything to protect Russia, and that “decisive action” would be taken to stabilise the situation in Rostov.
The Federal Security Service (FSB) said Prigozhin’s actions were “a call to start an armed civil conflict on the territory of the Russian Federation” and “a stab in the back to Russian servicemen fighting pro-fascist Ukrainian forces”.
In response, Russian authorities said security had been tightened in several regions and the mayor of Moscow announced that “anti-terrorist” measures were being taken in the capital.
“With the aim of preventing possible terrorist acts on the territory of the city of Moscow and the Moscow region, an anti-terror operation regime has been introduced,” the country’s national anti-terrorist committee was quoted by Russian agencies as saying.
Russia’s defence ministry addressed Wagner’s mercenary fighters in a statement, saying that they had been “deceived and dragged into a criminal adventure”.
It urged them to contact its representatives and those of law enforcement services, and promised to guarantee their security.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the armed insurrection was evidence of Russia’s inherent political instability. “Russia’s weakness is obvious,” he said. “And the longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain, and problems it will have for itself later.”
The events in Rostov were the latest provocation from Prigozhin since Russian authorities announced they would launch a criminal case against the mercenary chief, over threats he allegedly made to remove the country’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
On Friday, Prigozhin accused Shoigu of ordering a rocket attack on Wagner’s field camps in Ukraine and railed against the toll it has taken on Wagner forces.
“Huge numbers of our fighters, of our combat comrades, have been killed,” he said. “The evil that the military leadership of the country bears must be stopped. They neglect the lives of soldiers. They forget the word justice.”
Prigozhin estimated that 2,000 of his fighters had been killed in the blasts, though he failed to provide evidence for that death toll. His message included a call to action that the Russian government has since interpreted as an appeal to mutiny.
“There are 25,000 of us, and we’re going to figure out why this chaos is happening in the country,” Prigozhin said, indicating that he had more forces in reserve and support from military members. “Everyone is welcome to join. We must end this disgrace.”
He also posted a video in which he dismissed Moscow’s claims that Kyiv was planning to launch an offensive on the Russian-controlled territories in eastern Ukraine in February 2022, a claim that had served as a rationale for launching a full-fledged invasion.
He accused the defence ministry of “trying to deceive the public and the president” and “spin the story that there was insane levels of aggression from the Ukrainian side and that they were going to attack us together with the whole NATO bloc”.
Prigozhin’s words marked a significant escalation in his long-running standoff with the Russian military’s top brass. In response, the ministry issued a statement saying Prigozhin’s accusations were “not true and are an informational provocation”.
Prigozhin said his actions did not amount to a military coup but were rather, “a march of justice”.
Criminal case opened against Prigozhin
Russia’s FSB security service opened a criminal case against him for calling for an armed mutiny, the TASS news agency said on Friday, citing the National Antiterrorism Committee.
The security service also called on Wagner fighters to “take measures to detain” their leader. The deputy commander of Russia’s campaign in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, appealed to the forces to submit to Moscow’s command.
“I urge you to stop,” Surovikin said in a Telegram video, where he appeared in military fatigues, his hand perched on a rifle. “You must do this before it is too late. Obey the will and command of the elected president of the Russian Federation. Stop the convoys. Return to bases and places where you’re stationed.”
The Kremlin has also said Putin was being “constantly” informed of the unfolding events and that “necessary measures are being taken”.
Yulia Shapovalova, reporting for Al Jazeera from Moscow, said Russia’s Ministry of Defence released a statement in which it said Ukraine was taking advantage of the Wagner chief’s “provocation” and that Kyiv’s forces had launched an offensive in the direction of Bakhmut city.
“Also, at the moment, armoured military personnel vehicles can be seen in the streets of Moscow. But generally, people report that the capital looks pretty calm right now. That’s probably because security measures have been stepped up in the capital and all the most important facilities have been taken under protection,” Shapovalova said.
Several high-ranking Russian generals also released video messages addressing Prigozhin, saying that it was a time for unity in Russia as the country’s enemies in Ukraine and the West were “rejoicing right now”. The generals described the Wagner chief’s comments as a “stab in the back of the country and the president”, and the FSB has also appealed to Wagner fighters to detain their boss, Shapovalova added.
The United States said it was monitoring the situation, with National Security Council spokesperson Adam Hodge telling reporters that US allies were also being consulted.
Rising tensions in military community
The standoff, many of the details of which remained unclear, appears to be the biggest domestic crisis Putin has faced since he sent thousands of troops into Ukraine in February of last year in what he called “a special military operation”.
“Over the past few months, Wagner Group played a vital role in the Russian attack on Bakhmut, on Soledar, and this conflict with the Ministry of Defence has been brewing for a lot of time,” Al Jazeera correspondent Ali Hashem reported from Donetsk. “What’s happening right now is just the top of the iceberg.”
Prigozhin, whose frequent tirades on social media belie his limited role in the war as head of the Wagner private militia, has for months been openly accusing Shoigu and Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov, of rank incompetence and of denying his forces ammunition and support.
“It’s really quite extraordinary. Prigozhin has been critical of the way in which the Ministry of Defence and the official Russian military have been prosecuting this war, really from the very beginning, calling them unprofessional, accusing them of leading unnecessary deaths of Russian soldiers,” Sam Greene, the director for democratic resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Al Jazeera.
“But he has certainly taken that quite a few steps further.”
Greene described the Russian war in Ukraine as a “money-making endeavour” for defence services — and the way he sees it, Prigozhin and Shoigu are jostling for resources and control. But Greene added that it is unclear what Prigozhin’s strategy is at present.
“I will be honest: It is very difficult for me to understand the calculation that Prigozhin is making here,” Greene said. “This really is such a significant challenge that he either has to win it outright, or it’s hard to see how he’s going to survive in this system — or in fact, to survive at all.”