Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to crush what he called an armed mutiny after rebellious mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Saturday he had taken control of a southern city as part of an attempt to oust the military leadership.
The dramatic turn, with many details unclear, looked like the biggest domestic crisis Putin has faced since he ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine – which he called a “special military operation” – in February last year.
In a televised address, Putin said that “excessive ambitions and vested interests have led to treason,” and called the mutiny a “stab in the back.”
“It is a blow to Russia, to our people. And our actions to defend the Fatherland against such a threat will be harsh.”
“All those who deliberately stepped on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed insurrection, who took the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, will answer both to the law and to our people,” Putin said.
Prigozhin had demanded that Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, whom he has pledged to oust over what he says is their disastrous leadership of the war against Ukraine, come to see him in Rostov, a city near the Ukrainian border that he said he had seized control of.
He had said he had 25,000 fighters who would “restore justice” and had alleged, without providing evidence, that the military had killed a huge number of fighters from his Wagner private militia in an air strike, something the defense ministry denied.
Prigozhin’s Wagner militia spearheaded the capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut last month, and he has has for months been openly accusing Shoigu and Gerasimov of incompetence and of denying Wagner ammunition and support.
On Friday, he had appeared to cross a new line in the feud, saying that Putin’s stated rationale for invading Ukraine 16 months ago was based on lies concocted by the army’s top brass.
“The war was needed … so that Shoigu could become a marshal … so that he could get a second ‘Hero’ [of Russia] medal,” Prigozhin said in a video clip.
“The war wasn’t needed to demilitarize or denazify Ukraine,” he said, referring to Putin’s justifications for the war.
In one of many overnight frenzied audio messages, he had then made clear that he was moving against the army.
“Those who destroyed our lads, who destroyed the lives of many tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, will be punished. I ask that no one offer resistance…,” he said
“There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why chaos is happening in the country,” he said, promising to destroy any checkpoints or air forces that got in Wagner’s way. He later said his men had been involved in clashes with regular soldiers and had shot down a helicopter.
A Russian security source told Reuters that Wagner fighters had also taken control of military facilities in the city of Voronezh, about 310 miles south of Moscow.
Reuters could not independently confirm that assertion or many of the details provided by Prigozhin.
Russia’s FSB security opened a criminal case against Prigozhin for armed mutiny and said his statements were “calls for the start of an armed civil conflict on Russian territory.”
It added: “We urge the … fighters not to make irreparable mistakes, to stop any forcible actions against the Russian people, not to carry out the criminal and traitorous orders of Prigozhin, to take measures to detain him.”
The state news agency TASS quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying that all of Russia’s main security services were reporting to Putin “round the clock”.
Security was being tightened in Moscow, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said on his Telegram channel.
In Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden was briefed on the situation, a White House spokesperson said.
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