The owner of the private military firm Wagner made his most direct challenge yet to the Kremlin on Friday, calling for an armed insurrection aimed at ousting Russia’s defense minister. The security services responded immediately by opening a criminal investigation against Yevgeny Prigozhin and calling for his arrest.
In a sign of how seriously the Kremlin takes the threat, security has been tightened in Moscow and in Rostov-on-Don, which houses Russia’s military headquarters for the southern region and also oversees the fighting in Ukraine.
Today, Saturday, Prigozhin claimed that his forces had arrived in Rostov, saying that they did not encounter any resistance from young recruits at checkpoints, adding that his forces “do not fight children.”
“But we will eliminate anyone who stands in our way,” he said. We are going forward and we will go until the end.”
He claimed that the Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, had deployed warplanes to strike Wagner’s convoys, which were driving alongside the regular vehicles.
Prigozhin said that the Wagner field camps in Ukraine were bombed with missiles, helicopter gunships and artillery fire on Gerasimov’s orders following a meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in which they decided to destroy Wagner.
Prigozhin said that his troops would punish Shoigu in armed rebellion and urged the army not to resist.
“This is not a military coup, but a march for justice,” Prigozhin declared.
The National Counter-Terrorism Committee, part of the Federal Security Services, or FSB, said he would be investigated for advocating armed rebellion. The FSB urged Wagner’s contract soldiers to arrest Prigozhin and refuse to follow his “criminal and treacherous orders”. It described his remarks as a “stab in the back for Russian forces” and said they amounted to provoking an armed conflict in Russia.
The Russian prosecutor general said the criminal investigation was justified and that the charge of armed rebellion carried a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin had been informed of the situation and “all necessary measures have been taken”.
Wagner’s forces played a decisive role in the Russian war in Ukraine, and succeeded in controlling the city of Bakhmut, where the fiercest and longest bloody battles took place. Prigozhin often criticized Russian military leaders, accusing them of incompetence and depriving his forces of weapons and ammunition, but with his accusations and calls for armed rebellion on Friday, he seemed to have gone too far.
Russia’s Defense Ministry required all military contractors to sign contracts with it before July 1, but Prigozhin, whose dispute with the Defense Ministry goes back years, refused to comply. In a statement released late Friday, he said he was ready to reach a compromise with the Defense Department, but “we were treacherously deceived.”
He said, “Today they launched a missile strike on our rear camps, and a large number of our comrades were killed.” The Ministry of Defense denied attacking the Wagner camps.
Prigozhin claimed that Shoigu went to the Russian military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don personally to strike and then “cowardly” fled.