Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group stand guard in a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

Moscow: The owner of the Wagner private military contractor who called for an armed rebellion aimed at ousting Russia’s defence minister confirmed on Saturday morning that he and his troops have reached a key Russian city after crossing the border from Ukraine.

The Russian Defence Ministry denounced the actions as a “criminal venture” and called on Wagner fighters to return to their deployment point. The ministry said it would ensure their safety.

Yeveny Prigozhin posted a video of himself in Rostov-on-Don at the Russian military headquarters that oversees the fighting in Ukraine. He claimed that his forces had military facilities in the city under their control, including the air field. Other videos posted on social media showed military vehicles, including tanks, on the streets outside.

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Prigozhin said early on Saturday that his forces had crossed into Russia from Ukraine and had reached Rostov, adding that they faced no resistance from young conscripts at checkpoints and that his forces “aren’t fighting against children.”

“But we will destroy anyone who stands in our way,” he said in one of a series of angry video and audio recordings posted on social media beginning late Friday. “We are moving forward and will go until the end.”

Russia’s security services had responded to Prigozhin’s declaration of an armed rebellion by calling for his arrest. In a sign of how seriously the Kremlin took the threat, authorities declared a “counterterrorist regime” in Moscow and the capital’s surroundings, allowing enhanced security and restricted freedoms, and security was heightened in Moscow.

It was not immediately clear how he was able to enter the southern Russian city or how many troops he had with him.

Prigozhin alleged that Wagner field camps in Ukraine were struck by rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery fire on orders from the chief of the General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, following a meeting in Rostov with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at which they decided to destroy Wagner. He also said his forces shot down a Russian military helicopter that fired on a civilian convoy, but there was no independent confirmation.

Prigozhin said he had 25,000 troops under his command and would punish Shoigu in an armed rebellion, and urged the army not to offer resistance: “This is not a military coup, but a march of justice.”

While the outcome of the confrontation was still unclear, it appeared likely to further hinder Moscow’s war effort as Kyiv’s forces were probing Russian defences in the initial stages of a counteroffensive. The dispute, especially if Prigozhin were to prevail, also could have repercussions for President Vladimir Putin and his ability to maintain a united front.

Weapons and ammunition

The Wagner forces have played a crucial role in Russia’s war in Ukraine, succeeding in taking the city where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place, Bakhmut. But Prigozhin has increasingly criticized Russia’s military brass , accusing it of incompetence and of starving his troops of weapons and ammunition.

On Friday, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee, which is part of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, charged Prigozhin with calling for an armed rebellion, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The FSB urged Wagner’s contract soldiers to arrest Prigozhin and refuse to follow his “criminal and treacherous orders.” It called his statements a “stab in the back to Russian troops” and said they amounted to fomenting armed conflict.

Putin was informed about the situation and “all the necessary measures were being taken,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. On Saturday morning he added that Putin would address the nation “shortly.”

Heavy military trucks and armored vehicles were seen in several parts of central Moscow early Saturday, and soldiers toting assault rifles were deployed outside the main building of the Defence Ministry. The area around the presidential administration near Red Square was blocked, snarling traffic.

Col. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the deputy commander of the Russian group of forces fighting in Ukraine, urged the Wagner forces to stop any move against the army, saying it would play into the hands of Russia’s enemies, who are “waiting to see the exacerbation of our domestic political situation.”

Madness that threatens civil war

Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst, predicted this would be the end of Prigozhin.

“Now that the state has actively engaged, there’s no turning back,” she tweeted. “The termination of Prigozhin and Wagner is imminent. The only possibility now is absolute obliteration, with the degree of resistance from the Wagner group being the only variable. Surovikin was dispatched to convince them to surrender. Confrontation seems totally futile.”

Lt. Gen. Vladimir Alexeyev, a top military officer, denounced Prigozhin’s move as “madness” that threatens civil war.

“It’s a stab in the back to the country and the president. … Such a provocation could only be staged by enemies of Russia,” he said.

The Defence Ministry said in a statement that Ukraine was concentrating troops for an attack around Bakhmut to take advantage of “Prigozhin’s provocation.” It said Russian artillery and warplanes were firing on Ukrainian forces as they prepared an offensive.