Wagner Group stages “armed rebellion” against Russia; Putin calls action a “betrayal” [Updated]

Fighters with the private military contractor allegedly entered Russia's 11th largest city.
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Wagner Group chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin in a May 4, 2023 video. (Twitter)

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Kremlin-aligned Wagner Group, said that his fighters have crossed into Russia from Ukraine as part of a mission to topple the heads of the Russian military. Prigozhin denies he’s carrying out a coup, but instead vowed a “march for justice” in response to an alleged attack on his mercenary force. Now Russian leaders are calling for his arrest, while Wagner fighters led by Prigozhin have allegedly entered the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

The situation started on Friday, June 23 when Prigozhin posted on social media, claiming that the Russian military launched a missile at his contractors. The attack, he said, was ordered by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff. The Russian Ministry of Defense denied any such action, but Prigozhin has stood with his claim, promising to go “all the way” against Gerasimov and Shoigu. In response, the Russian security service the FSB has accused Prigozhin of “armed rebellion” and is calling for his arrest. 

The oligarch and Wagner leader said that he has 25,000 fighters ready for the fight, and promised to topple his enemies in the Russian military, who he has repeatedly accused of mismanaging the war in Ukraine over recent months.

“Those who killed our lads, and tens of thousands of lives of Russian soldiers [in the war in Ukraine] will be punished,” Prigozhin said in an audio post in one of several messages on Telegram in the last day.

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Overnight Prigozhin claimed that Wagner “columns” had crossed into Russia, and shot down a Russian helicopter that attacked civilians. There has not been any evidence to back up the allegations. He also claimed that soldiers at the border did not attempt to stop the mercenaries entering the country.  

Social media posts shared overnight and early Saturday morning, local Russian time, showed Russian security forces deploying roadblocks and vehicles in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities. Posts also show men with military gear, allegedly Wagner contractors inside the Russian Federation. Sergey Sobyanin, Moscow’s mayor, announced that “anti-terrorist” measures were being initiated in the city, per Reuters.

The FSB officially opened a criminal case against Prigozhin over the apparent mutiny, with the Prosecutor General’s Office saying he could face up to 20 years in prison, according to the Russian state news outlet TASS. TASS also reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin is being briefed on events by the FSB, military and interior ministry. 

Russian security forces in riot gear, including members of the Rosgvardia, the Russian National Guard, raided the St. Petersburg offices of the Wagner Group early Saturday morning.

Early in the morning in Russia, Wagner fighters allegedly entered the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, moving infantry and armor to the Southern Military District’s headquarters. Video and photos online show armed forces aiming weapons at the building. The Southern Military District has played a major role in directing the war in Ukraine, and oversees the Black Sea Fleet based out of Crimea.

“Law enforcement agencies are doing everything necessary to ensure the safety of residents of the area,” Vasily Golubev, governor for the Rostov region posted on Telegram at 4 a.m. local time, calling on people to remain in their homes and to not panic. “Law enforcement agencies are doing everything necessary to ensure the safety of residents of the area. I ask everyone to stay calm and not to leave home unless necessary.”

Additional video shows Prigozhin himself in Rostov, surrounded by Wagner fighters inside the Southern Military District headquarters. He’s seen on camera talking to Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (left, with mustache). The men are guarded by Wagner fighters. Prigozhin called on Gerasimov and Shoigu to meet him in the city, where he would stay if they promised to come. If not, he said, he would lead his forces to Moscow.

Other early morning footage shows alleged gunfights and military convoys on the move on the M4 freeway in Russia.

Top members of the Russian military issued video addresses Friday night to Wagner Group members, urging them to not fight against the Russian state.

“I urge you to stop. The enemy is waiting for our internal political situation to escalate. We must not play in the enemy’s favor in this difficult time,” Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the second-in-command for the invasion of Ukraine, said in his address. ”Before it is too late, it is necessary to submit to the will and order to the nationally elected president of the Russian Federation, to stop the convoys, to take them back to their permanent deployment and concentration locations, and to only resolve all issues peacefully,” 

The apparent declaration of war on the Russian military comes after months of feuding between Prigozhin and the Ministry of Defense. Prigozhin had dedicated his fighters to taking the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. He repeatedly claimed the Ministry of Defense was not supplying him the ammunition and other tools he needed to win. Despite the fierce rhetoric from Prigozhin, he has mostly operated without pushback, in part due to his close ties to Putin. The Wagner Group is a private military contractor, but in addition to Prigozhin’s ties to Putin, the company has relied on the Russian military for logistics, including ammunition, while participating in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The situation escalated earlier this month when Russia pushed for Wagner to sign a contract with the military, something even Putin publicly called for. Prigozhin refused. 

Update: 6/23/23: This story has been updated with footage of Yevgeny Prigozhin inside the Southern Military District HQ in Rostov-on-Don.

Update: 6/23/23: This story has been updated with news of Prigozhin’s demands, and the raid on Wagner’s St. Petersburg offices.

Update: 6/24/23: President Vladimir Putin addressed Russia.

Hours after Wagner Group fighters seized military installations in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the actions a “betrayal” of Russia. 

“Any actions that split us is a betrayal of your people, betrayal of comrades who are fighting on the front lines, a knife in the back of our people,” he said, per a translation by the BBC World Service.

Putin addressed the Russian nation Saturday morning, around 10 a.m. local time. He framed the situation as a distraction from the war in Ukraine, something that weakens Russia as a nation. He drew parallels to the Russian civil war in 1917, which he claimed cost Russia victory in World War I and resulted in huge losses of territories. 

He did not directly name Prigozhin, who has long been an ally. Putin did however name the Wagner Group, who he said had been fighting shoulder to shoulder with regular Russian soldiers. Putin promised “harsh” actions against betrayals that stemmed from “personal ambition.” He promised additional anti-terrorist measures in Moscow and other areas. Putin said that measures would be taken to “stabilize” the situation in Rostov-on-Don, but did not specify what those might be. 

“Those who are being drawn in, I urge them not to make this irrevocable mistake and stop taking part in the crime,” Putin added.

Prigozhin and the Wagner Group have not yet responded to Putin’s comments.

This is a developing story.

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