Prigozhin declares war on Russian military leadership

Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin | Pool photo by Sergei Ilnitsky/AFP via Getty Images

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Vladimir Putin is facing a major military crisis after Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin declared war on Moscow’s own defense ministry, claiming Kremlin officials had killed thousands of his soldiers.

In a statement issued Friday night, the FSB security agency said it had “legally and reasonably begun criminal proceedings” against the Wagner Group warlord “for the organization of armed insurrection.” Russian media outlet TASS reported Saturday morning that Putin plans to make an address soon.

Prigozhin claimed he had pulled his troops back from Ukraine and into the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, and vowed: “If anyone gets in our way, we will destroy everything!” The outspoken mercenary commander also threatened to move on Moscow if his demands were not met, and Russian authorities responded by saying the key highway from Moscow to the south was blocked.

By Clothilde Goujard

POLITICO could not verify the claim that Wagner troops had entered Rostov and Prigozhin did not present evidence of the massive troop movements he claimed were underway. But in the early hours of Saturday morning, videos began circulating on social media that reportedly showed unidentified armed men dressed in camouflage entering Rostov-on-Don, the administrative center of the Rostov region, and seizing government buildings.

The feud between Prigozhin and Russia’s ministry of defense has been building for months but now appears to have boiled over.

What we know so far

  • Russia’s FSB security agency said it has opened a criminal case against Prigozhin “for the organization of armed insurrection.”
  • Prigozhin claimed his troops have moved into Russia’s Rostov, and vowed: “If anyone gets in our way, we will destroy everything!”
  • Videos have circulated on social media reportedly showing unidentified armed troops entering Rostov-on-Don, the administrative center of the Rostov region, and seizing government buildings.
  • The governor of Rostov warned residents to stay indoors.
  • Russia’s defense ministry said Ukrainian forces are “taking advantage of Prigozhin’s provocation” on the front lines around Bakhmut.
  • Prigozhin claimed around 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the war on Ukraine.
  • Putin has been briefed on the situation, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, according to Russian state media.
  • Prigozhin’s move comes after he claimed 2,000 Wagner men were killed as a result of strikes ordered by Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

According to Russian state media, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Putin is aware of the rapidly unfolding situation and “all necessary measures are being taken.”

“Prigozhin’s statements and actions are actually the calls for the beginning of an armed civil conflict on the territory of Russia and are a ‘stab in the back’ for Russian servicemen,” the FSB was cited as saying by the Ria Novosti news service.

The move comes after Prigozhin accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of having hidden “colossal” failings on the battlefield from Putin, claiming that 2,000 Wagner men were killed as a result of strikes ordered by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

In a later statement on Telegram, Prigozhin called Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian Armed Forces and the overall commander of the war on Ukraine, “criminals” who had “destroyed around 100,000 Russian soldiers.”

In an audio recording posted just after 5 a.m. Rostov time, Prigozhin repeated his threat that his troops would destroy anything that stood in their way. “Once again I’m warning everyone: we will … destroy everything around us. You can’t destroy us. We have goals. We are all ready to die. All 25,000 of us.”

In response to Prigozhin’s allegations, Moscow issued a strong denial and a procession of generals have lined up to urge Wagner fighters to stand down.

In one video appeal, Lieutenant General Vladimir Alekseev, first deputy chief of the general staff of the armed forces, said Prigozhin does not have the authority to give orders. “This is a state coup,” he insisted, “come to your senses!”

Meanwhile, the Deputy Commander of Russian forces in Ukraine Sergei Surovikin — known as “General Armageddon” — urged Wagner to hold its positions and not to turn on its own allies. “Stop the columns, return them to the points of permanent deployment,” he pleaded.

Russia’s defense ministry issued a statement in the early hours of Saturday morning, warning that Ukrainian forces are “taking advantage of Prigozhin’s provocation” on the front lines around the key battleground town of Bakhmut, which Wagner troops previously held. Moscow’s top brass also said the 35th and 36th brigades of Ukraine’s Marine Corps “are on the starting lines for offensive operations.”

In a tweet in the early hours of Saturday, Ukraine’s defense ministry said: “We are watching.”

Rolling the dice

Earlier Friday, the Wagner Group founder questioned Moscow’s rationale for launching its invasion of Ukraine, saying that “the Armed Forces of Ukraine were not going to attack Russia with NATO,” and that “the war was needed for a bunch of scumbags to triumph and show how strong of an army they are.”

In a bombastic video statement, he called the Russian military leadership “evil” and vowed to march for “justice,” threatening anyone who stood in his way.

In a second message released on his Telegram channel in the early hours of Saturday morning, Prigozhin said that “at the current time, we are entering Rostov,” in Russia, adding that conscripts had been sent to turn Wagner Group fighters back. However, he went on to claim, those guarding the frontier had greeted his troops with open arms.

“If anyone gets in our way, we will destroy everything!” Prigozhin vowed.

In a post on his Telegram account, Vasily Golubev, the governor of the Rostov region, said: “The current situation requires the maximum concentration of all forces to maintain order. Law enforcement agencies are doing everything necessary to ensure the safety of residents of the area. I ask everyone to stay calm and do not leave the house without the need.”

Russian state media said checkpoints have been erected in Rostov-on-Don, close to the souther border with Ukraine. At the same time, unnamed officials told news agency TASS that security has been tightened in Moscow with national guard units deployed to keep the peace. Unverified videos purport to show armored vehicles parked on the streets of the capital.

Russian state media also said Moscow’s Red Square will be closed to the public on Saturday, claiming the reason for the closure was because an event was to be held there.

Speaking to POLITICO, Colonel Philip Ingram, a former British military intelligence officer and ex-NATO planner, said that it was “too early to tell” if a coup was underway. “Clearly Moscow is worried and has activated a defense plan — Prigozhin is trying to push something focused on Shoigu, but it could be many things.”

According to Ian Garner, a Russia expert and author of a new book on the fallout of the war in Ukraine, the Wagner chief has overplayed his hand. “Prigozhin has rolled the dice, and now the state is going to do away with him for good,” he said.

“I suspect Prigozhin’s chances of launching a successful coup are slim. The state can offer everything he does — money, freedom, prestige — without him. Why would the Wagner fighters side with Prigozhin in a battle to the death?” Garner said.

Death knell for Wagner

The chaos amounts to a death knell for the Wagner Group, which has been active not just in Ukraine but also in Africa, according to one analyst.

“Whatever this is, it is definitely the dismantling of Wagner,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst and founder of the R-Politik consultancy firm, on her Telegram channel.

“This is the end of Prigozhin and the end of Wagner. An important moment: many within the elite will hold it against Putin that things have come this far and that the president did not react sooner. That’s why this entire story is also a blow to Putin.”

In his increasingly unhinged voice memos on Telegram, Prigozhin also claimed a Russian military helicopter had opened fire on a convoy of his troops — and that Wagner had shot it down.

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson on Russia Adam Hodge said: “We are monitoring the situation and will be consulting with allies and partners on these developments.”

Meanwhile, the Kremlin published a pre-recorded video of President Putin in honor of Youth Day.

This story is being updated.

Paul McLeary contributed reporting.