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Vladimir Putin has called Wagner chief Yevgney Prigozhin’s military coup ‘treason’ as he addressed the Russian people on Saturday, warning that the military leader had ‘stabbed him in the back’ and Moscow is on lockdown amid a red alert.
Prigozhin and his feared 25,000-strong Wagner militia have reportedly control of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, saying they are ‘ready to die’ as they vow revenge for a military strike from Putin’s forces that the mercenary leader says killed some of his men.
All public events have been cancelled in the Russian capital as Vladimir Putin took to TV to say some Russians have been ‘tricked into a criminal adventure’ in a bid to affirm his increasingly shaky grip on power.
Putin described the group’s actions as a ‘criminal adventuristic campaign’ that is ‘equivalent to armed mutiny’, and urged those involved to cease any armed action, as the unit’s HQ in St Petersburg was reportedly raided today.
It comes after Prigozhin issued a new message at about 7:30 am Moscow time saying his men have infiltrated the Southern Defense Command in Rostov-on-Don and that the city’s airfield was under his control.
A message posted on the Wagner Telegram channel on Saturday said: ‘Putin made the wrong choice. All the worse for him. Soon we will have a new president.’
Prigozhin, who was once a confidant of Vladimir Putin before declaring war on Moscow’s military leadership last night, said in a video that the highest-ranking officer at the command post had fled as soon as he learned that Wagner forces were approaching.
A Russian security source said Wagner fighters had also taken control of military facilities in the city of Voronezh, about 500 km (310 miles) south of Moscow.
This would be significant as it marks the halfway point between Rostov and Moscow.
The governor of Russia’s Voronezh region said on Saturday that the army was taking ‘necessary military measures’ in the region as part of a counter-terrorist operation declared after an armed mutiny by the Wagner mercenary group.
It is also being claimed that Wagner troops are on the outskirts of two other southern cities, Krasnodar and Volgograd – but this has not been verified.
Prigozhin said he had 25,000 troops under his command and would punish Russian military boss Shoigu in an armed rebellion, urging the army not to offer resistance: ‘This is not a military coup, but a march of justice.’
Putin today told the Russian people: ‘This is a criminal adventuristic campaign. It’s equivalent to armed mutiny.
‘We will defend ourselves and repel this inimical move. We are fighting for the life and security of our citizens and our territory.
‘It’s a question of Russia’s millennial history. Everything has to be done to put this danger to rest.
‘It’s an attempt to subvert us from the inside. This is treason in the face of those who are fighting on the front.
‘This is a stab in the back of our troops and the people of Russia.’
A grave-looking Putin told Russians: ‘What we are facing now is treason.’
The 70-year-old dictator warned: ‘Everyone who deliberately embarked on the path of betrayal will suffer inevitable punishment.
‘The armed forces received the appropriate orders.’
He continued: ‘As President of Russia and the Marshall in chief, as a citizen of Russia I am doing everything to repel this attack and to ensure the freedom and security of our citizens. Those who are mutiny have betrayed Russia.’
Even as Putin spoke, 180 Russian servicemen and security forces at a border crossing in the Voronezh region refused to interfere with the actions of the Wagner PMC and laid down their arms.
Prigozhin responded on Saturday by telling the President he was ‘wrong’ to accuse him of treason. He added that Russians no longer want to live in a country of ‘corruption, lies and bureaucracy’.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Saturday called on Russians to rally around the Russian President, as photos showed a heavy police and army presence guarding key sites such as the Kremlin and the Red Square in Moscow.
The Chechen military leader also called for loyalty to the President, urging his forces to help ‘put down’ the mutiny. He has reportedly sent soldiers to fight the Wagner unit.
Residents have been told to stay in their homes by government officials, but some were seen out observing what was happening, even live-streaming the action on their cell phones.
Steve Fish, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, told the BBC World Service early on Saturday that ‘this has the look of a military coup’.
Now the Moscow mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, has reportedly said all public events have been cancelled, as Putin called close ally Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko to brief him on the situation.
Speaking after taking control of Rostov-on-Don, Prigozhin said: ‘When we came here, we once again confirmed: a lot, a huge amount of territory was lost. Soldiers were killed three, or four times more than reported to commanders. And what is reported is 10 times less than they say on TV. Losses per day amount to some days up to 1,000 people.’
‘These are the dead missing, the wounded and the so-called refuseniks, who refuse not because they are afraid, but because they have no way out, no ammunition, no control. The Chief of the General Staff fled from here as soon as he learned that we were approaching the building,’ he concluded.
New photos showed Wagner fighters walking through the streets of Rostov-on-Don on Saturday morning, one picture featured a member flashing the v for victory sign.
Some Wagner fighters appeared to be using a ring of silver tape on their leg or arm to signal their allegiance to one another.
Footage shared on social media showed troops outside the Southern Military Headquarters – which plays a crucial role in managing the Ukraine war – while more were seen less than half a mile encircling the Rostov office of the Interior Ministry.
Taking over the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don would have ‘significant’ consequences for Russia’s ability to defend against Ukraine’s counteroffensive, said the Institute for the Study of War this morning.
The think tank said: ‘Prigozhin may have wildly miscalculated and called for an armed rebellion incorrectly thinking that he would have Putin’s backing.
‘The severe consequences that would result from a failed armed rebellion suggest that Prigozhin viewed his alternatives to be just as threatening.’
Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert and former member of the National Security Council, tweeted on Friday night as the first images from Rostov emerged: ‘Those are not Russian National Guard troops. That looks like Wagner troops entering the SMD HQ.’
Putin’s humiliated army commander General Valery Gerasimov was reported to be ‘holed up in a civilian apartment with his friends in Rostov’, according to media loyal to Prigozhin.
This came after the chief of the army general staff fled ‘with people loyal to him’ from the war command post in the city after Wagner forces took control.
There were claims that the 22nd GRU military intelligence special forces detachment went over to Prigozhin’s side.
A video that appeared on Telegram on Saturday showed mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin meeting with Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and deputy chief of the General Staff Vladimir Alexeyev.
In the video, whose origin couldn’t be independently verified, Prigozhin claimed that he and his troops were ‘saving Russia’ and demanded that the Russian authorities give up Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
‘We want to get the chief of the General Staff and Shoigu,’ Prigozhin said. ‘Until they are here, we are here, we are blocking the city of Rostov and going toward Moscow.’
Yevkurov and Alexeyev in the video tried to persuade Prigozhin to withdraw his forces from Roston-on-Don, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, in St Petersburg, the FSB was raiding the headquarters of Wagner’s private military company.
And Britain’s defence ministry said on Saturday that the Russian state was facing its greatest security challenge of recent times.
‘Over the coming hours, the loyalty of Russia’s security forces, and especially the Russian National Guard, will be key to how this crisis plays out. This represents the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times,’ Britain’s defence ministry said in a regular intelligence update.
It added: ‘Further Wagner units are moving north through Vorenezh Oblast, almost certainly aiming to get to Moscow.
‘With very limited evidence of fighting between Wagner and Russian security forces, some have likely remained passive, acquiescing to Wagner.’
Wagner’s armoured vehicles were seen speeding through Voronezh region several hundred miles from the capital on Saturday.
Russian forces appeared to confirm three of its attack helicopters had been shot down by Wagner.
Prigozhin launched his extraordinary action after calling for the ousting of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and vowing to punish Russian military leaders – whom he accused of killing ‘hundreds’ of his mercenaries in an air strike.
The private army boss also claimed the Russian military leaders are lying to Putin and hiding the bodies of a further 2,000 soldiers to conceal losses in Ukraine.
As his Wagner forces closed in on Rostov on Friday night, 1,000 miles from Moscow, Prigozhin said they would take ‘all necessary steps’ to topple the country’s military leadership.
He declared: ‘We will destroy anyone who stands in our way… we are moving forward and will go until the end’.
In response, Russian military vehicles were seen on the streets of Moscow.
The FSB security services earlier said they had opened a criminal investigation into Prigozhin and called for his arrest, accusing him of inciting armed insurrection.
While the realities on the ground remain unclear, the episode appears to be the biggest internal military crisis Putin has faced since he ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
Mick Mulroy, a retired C.I.A. officer and a former Pentagon official, said that Prigozhin poses ‘a serious challenge’ to Putin.
‘If Mr Prigozhin’s threats materialize, the Russian military may have to refocus its efforts from countering the Ukrainian advance to the Russian government’s ‘self-preservation’,’ he said.
‘Even if this attempted coup fails, it emphatically makes the point that those closest to this war know it was a terrible mistake.’
It was reported on Saturday that several members of Putin’s circle called on security council chief Nikolai Patrushev to seize power amid concerns the weakened dictator is unable to clamp down on Wagner.
Patrushev, 71, secretary of the powerful Russian security council, is seen as being in charge of the response.
‘The president has practically withdrawn himself from solving the current crisis,’ reported the General SVR Telegram channel.
Patrushev believes the armed revolt should be ‘severely repressed’ but refused to take control of the government, according to their report.
The attempted coup is being well-received in Ukraine due to the chaos it is expected to cause, where forces are in the midst of a counter-offensive against Russian troops following their invasion in February last year.
A brutal civil war in Russia is beginning, claimed Ukrainian presidential aide Mykailo Podolyak.
‘The start of the Ukrainian counter-offensive definitively destabilised the Russian elites, deepening the internal division that arose after the defeat in Ukraine.
‘Today we are actually witnessing the beginning of a civil war.
‘Prigozhin’s group captures military installations, headquarters and entire cities, encountering almost no resistance on their way, disarming random soldiers and policemen.
‘Putin declares Prigozhin a traitor and outlaw and announces the appropriate orders to the special services, but nothing happens – a crisis of governance, the actual loss of power.
‘At the same time, Wagner continues its march on Moscow. Ukraine continues to move its own way… to the 1991 borders.’
This would mean the return of Crimea and the Donbas, along with other invaded regions, to Kyiv’s control.
As Prigozhin said his men were ready to ‘go all the way’ against Russian military leaders, the state news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying all of the country’s security services were reporting to Putin ’round the clock’.
Security was stepped up on Friday night at government buildings, transport facilities and other key locations in Moscow, Russia’s TASS news agency reported, citing a source at a security service.
Meanwhile, Russian state media had coverage across its front page dedicated to the ‘armed rebellion’ by the Wagner chief, while Google News was reportedly blocked in the country as the feud intensified.
Prigozhin has said his actions do not amount to a military coup.
But in a frenzied series of audio messages, in which the sound of his voice sometimes varied and could not be independently verified, he appeared to suggest that his 25,000-strong militia was en route to ousting the leadership of the defense ministry in Moscow.
Prigozhin said: ‘Those who destroyed our lads, who destroyed the lives of many tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, will be punished. I ask that no one offer resistance…
‘There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why chaos is happening in the country,’ he said, promising to tackle any checkpoints or air forces that got in Wagner’s way.
‘We will consider anyone who tries to resist a threat and quickly destroy them,’ he said.