6 June 2024

The owner of the Wagner private military contractor made his most direct challenge to the Kremlin yet, calling for an armed rebellion aimed at ousting Russia’s defense minister. The security services reacted immediately by calling for the arrest of Yevgeny Prigozhin.

In a sign of how seriously the Kremlin was taking the threat, security was heightened in Moscow and in Rostov-on-Don, which is home to the Russian military headquarters for the southern region and also oversees the fighting in Ukraine.

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 succeed, also could have repercussions for President Vladimir Putin and his ability to maintain a united front.

Prigozhin claimed early Saturday that his forces had crossed into Russia from Ukraine and had reached Rostov, saying 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.”

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

And despite Prigozhin’s statements that Wagner convoys had entered Rostov-on-Don, there was no confirmation of that yet on Russian social networks. Video posted online showed armored vehicles, including tanks, stationed on the streets and troops moving into position, but it was unclear whether they were under Wagner or military command. Earlier, heavy trucks were seen blocking highways leading into the city and long convoys of National Guard trucks were seen on a road.

The governor of the Voronezh region, just to the north, told residents that a column of military vehicles was moving along the main highway and advised them to stay off the road.

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

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.

Prigozhin, who said he had 25,000 troops under his command, said his troops 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.”

The National Anti-Terrorism Committee, which is part of the Federal Security Services, or FSB, charged him 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 spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

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.

Prigozhin claimed that Shoigu went to the Russian military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don personally to direct the strike and then “cowardly” fled.

“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 it appeared that “Prigozhin fully intends for Wagner to move against MoD leadership and forcibly remove them from power, more likely against the Southern Military District command in Rostov-on-Don but possibly also against Moscow.”

It added that despite Putin’s support for Prigozhin, he would be highly unlikely to accept any armed rebellion: “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 Adam Hodge said: “We are monitoring the situation and will be consulting with allies and partners on these developments.”

Michael Kofman, director of Russia Studies at the CAN research group in Arlington, Virginia, tweeted that Prigozhin’s actions struck him as “a desperate act, though much depends on whether Prigozhin is alone, or if others that matter join him. I’m skeptical this ends well for him or Wagner.”

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.

In other developments in the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on other countries to heed warnings that Russia may be planning to attack an occupied nuclear power plant to cause a radiation disaster.

Members of his government briefed international representatives on the possible threat to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, whose six reactors have been shut down for months. Zelenskyy said he expected other nations to “give appropriate signals and exert pressure” on Moscow.

The Kremlin’s spokesman has denied the threat to the plant is coming from Russian forces.

The potential for a life-threatening release of radiation has been a concern since Russian troops invaded Ukraine last year and seized the plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power station. The head of the U.N.’s atomic energy agency spent months trying to negotiate the establishment of a safety perimeter to protect the facility as nearby areas came under repeated shelling, but he has been unsuccessful.

The International Atomic Energy Agency noted Thursday that “the military situation has become increasingly tense” amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive that began this month in Zaporizhzhia province, where the namesake plant is located, and in an adjacent part of Donetsk province.

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS