Moscow is on alert after Yevgeny Prigozhin called for a ‘March of Justice’ in response to an alleged air strike on his fighters.
Russian strongman Yevgeny Prigozhin said he was leading his Wagner forces into Russia after being accused of organising an “armed uprising” in retaliation for what he claimed was an air strike against his own paramilitaries.
The FSB, Russia’s main security service, launched 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 vowed 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 voice memos in which he said a “huge number” of fighters had been killed in an air strike and that Wagner would “respond to this evildoing”, in his most vitriolic tirade against his country’s military leadership to date.
As the FSB moved to arrest him, armoured vehicles were spotted on the streets of Moscow, where law enforcement authorities told state newswire Tass that “all the most important facilities, state authorities, and transport infrastructure facilities have been taken under enhanced protection”.
In a voice memo posted at 2 a.m. Moscow time, Prigozhin said Wagner had left Ukraine and was advancing on Rostov, a big city in southern Russia close to the front line.
“Right now we have crossed all the border points with Ukraine. The border guards greeted 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 Wagner shot down a Russian army helicopter after it allegedly opened fire on civilians. There was no immediate evidence to verify his claim.
Details have so far been largely confined to voice memos posted by Prigozhin, who owns an infamous troll farm, and official statements by Russian authorities.
Though both sides provided scant evidence for their claims, Russia’s unusual reaction indicated the Kremlin was taking the potential threat seriously.
State television, which normally studiously avoids mentioning the warlord by name, made an emergency broadcast to sum up the news, while two senior generals who rarely speak in public urged Wagner’s fighters to stand down.
The chaos follows months of public infighting between Wagner and the army as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine continues to sputter.
Prigozhin claimed that defence minister Sergei Shoigu had ordered the alleged air strike on Wagner fighters in secret, then “ran away like a bitch to avoid explaining why he sent helicopters to destroy our boys”.
“The evil brought by the country’s military leadership must be stopped. Those who destroyed our boys today and ruined the lives of many tens of thousands of our soldiers will be punished,” Prigozhin said.
“There are 25,000 of us, and we are going to sort out why the country is such a mess,” he added.
Prigozhin claimed to have the support of “most of the soldiers” in the regular armed forces, though he provided no evidence of this.
Russia’s defence ministry dismissed his claims of an air strike as an “information provocation” and said Ukraine’s army had “taken advantage of Prigozhin’s provocation” to attack along the front lines amid its counteroffensive.
“Prigozhin’s statements and actions amount to calls for the start of an armed civil conflict on Russian territory and are a ‘stab in the back’ for Russian servicemen fighting pro-fascist Ukrainian forces,” the FSB said, according to state newswire Ria Novosti.
Prigozhin had created “the risk of escalating the confrontation”, it added, urging people “not to make irrevocable mistakes, to stop all uses of force against the Russian people, not to carry out Prigozhin’s criminal and treasonous orders, and to take steps to detain him”.
The Russian prosecutor-general’s office confirmed Prigozhin had been charged with “organising an armed uprising”, which carries a sentence of 12 to 20 years in prison.
Prigozhin’s gambit appeared to mark the collapse of a hybrid system in which a patchwork of competing security forces fought in Ukraine, often at cross purposes.
Sergei Surovikin, 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 only waiting for our domestic political situation to get inflamed. Don’t play into the enemy’s hands in this difficult time for the country!” Surovikin said, staring into the camera dressed in military fatigues and clutching an assault rifle.
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.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, said the country’s security agencies “are informing the president nonstop around the clock about the measures they are taking to carry out the orders he gave earlier”.
US officials are monitoring the situation “and will be consulting with allies and partners on these developments,” according to a statement from National Security Council spokesperson Adam Hodge.