In a stunning change of events in the Russia-Ukraine war, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner group, has called for a coup against Russia’s military leaders, saying he has 25,000 fighters ready to “end this mess.”
Soldiers across Russia were put on high alert on Friday night, June 23 after Prigozhin urged citizens to stay at home and threatened to march on the Kremlin.
The Wagner group chief issued the call after accusing Russian generals of carrying out on airstrike on his fighters in Ukraine. He said “huge number” had been killed but provided no evidence.
In an audio message late on Friday night, Prigozhin said his troops are entering Rostov.
“We crossed the state border in all places,” Prigozhin said. “The border guards came out to meet and hugged our fighters.
“We are entering Rostov. We don’t fight children. Shoigu (Defence Minister) kills children. He put 18-year-old boys against us. These guys will live and go back to their mothers. But we will destroy everything that gets in the way.”
He later claimed his troops had shot down a Russian military helicopter after it opened fire on civilians in Rostov, though he did not offer evidence.
The FSB, Russia’s main intelligence service, said that it had opened a criminal case against Prigozhin, once considered one of Vladimir Putin’s most trusted allies, and declared him to be a “foreign agent”.
The FSB accuses Prigozhin of an “armed rebellion inside Russia”. The FSB added: “This is punishable with between 12 and 20 years in prison.”
It also called on Wagner group members to arrest Prighozin .
In his Telegram audio message calling for an overthrow of Russian military leaders, Prighozin said: “The commanders’ council of the Wagner Private Military Company has reached a decision.
“The evil that the country’s military leadership perpetuates must be stopped.
“I ask you not to resist. Anyone who does will be considered a threat and destroyed. That goes for any checkpoints and aviation on our way.”
“Presidential power, the government, the police and Russian guard will work as usual.
“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice. Our actions do not interfere with the troops in any way.”
“There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out what this chaos is happening in the country,” he said in a later update. “Anyone who wants to join can. We need to end this mess.”
Earlier on Friday Prigozhin claimed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was based on lies that the country was a threat to Moscow and its citizens.
In an explosive video, he dismantled the case Vladimir Putin has offered for the war that has killed or wounded more than 220,000 Russian soldiers.
While the outspoken Wagner commander has often criticised the conduct of Russia’s defence ministry, he has not previously attacked the central planks of Moscow’s propaganda.
“The Ministry of Defence deceived the president and the public, telling them that there was insane aggression from Ukraine and that they were going to attack us with the entire Nato bloc,” Prigohzin said.
Reports emerging on social media on Saturday morning allege that Putin has been sent to his bunker in the Kremlin.
Also videos on social media show hundreds of tanks belonging to the Wagner group traveling inside Russia with main Russian troops just watching. Another video shows FSB agents engaging in a shoot out with Wagner fighters.
The US and Ukraine say they are watching the drama unfold with keen interest.
In the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, said that the Russian leader was aware of “the situation around Prigozhin”.
Later reports said that Putin’s motorcade was seen speeding through Moscow to the Kremlin from his residence in the suburbs of the capital.
General Sergei Surovikin, the deputy head of the armed forces in Ukraine, called on Mr Prigohzin to ‘stop the convoys and return them to their bases.”
“Together we have been on a difficult path,” Gen Surovikin said. “We fought together, took risks, suffered losses and won together. We are the same blood. We are warriors. I urge you to stop.
“The enemy is just waiting for the internal political situation in our country to deteriorate. You can’t play into the hands of the enemy in these difficult times for our country.”
News reports also said that an emergency plan called “krepost”, or fortress, had deployed Russian soldiers around the capital and to strategic locations.
Prigozhin is a fierce critic of Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s Defence Minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the head of the military.
He said that he wanted to avenge the ordinary Russian soldiers who have been killed by incompetent leadership since the start of the invasion of Ukraine last February.
And on Friday evening, he accused Mr Shoigu of ordering the Russian military to shell a Wagner camp and published a video of what he said was the remains of the destroyed camp.
In a statement, the Russian Ministry of Defence denied this.
“All the messages and video frames distributed on social networks on behalf of Prigozhin about the alleged strike by the Russian Ministry of Defence on the rear camps of Wagner do not correspond to reality,” it said.
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