An armoured personnel carrier (APC) is seen on a street of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24, 2023.
An armoured personnel carrier (APC) is seen on a street of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

Moscow: Russia opened a criminal case against the powerful head of the Wagner mercenary group after he threatened to attack the country's Defense Ministry for allegedly firing missiles at his fighters, as tensions surged between the two feuding Kremlin camps over the war in Ukraine.

The Defense Ministry denied the claims by Yevgeny Prigozhin that it had attacked Wagner's bases in Russia, calling his allegations a "provocation" in a statement late Friday. Prosecutors opened a criminal probe into Prigozhin for allegedly calling for an "armed uprising." The Federal Security Service said it was seeking to detain him and appealed to his troops not to obey his "criminal orders."

Authorities tightened security in Moscow, including around government buildings, and put riot police on alert, according to Tass. The main state television channel showed a rare late-night special news update, recounting the official charges against Prigozhin and dismissing his allegations.

President Vladimir Putin has been informed of all the events involving Prigozhin and "necessary measures" are being taken, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, the Interfax news service reported.

Prigozhin vows to punish military leaders

Earlier, the mercenary chief posted a series of audio messages on his Telegram channel vowing to "punish" Russia's military leaders for the alleged attack and the losses of "tens of thousands" of Russian troops in the war. He accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of overseeing an operation to "destroy" Wagner.

There was no immediate sign of Wagner fighters mobilizing to carry out Prigozhin's threat, which marked the most dramatic escalation in a feud between the mercenary leader and Russia's defense establishment that's spiraled as the war has dragged on.

"There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why there is lawlessness happening in the country," Prigozhin said. "Everyone who wants to join us, we need to end this mess."

Though he threatened to destroy "anyone who will try to resist," Prigozhin said "this is not a military coup. This is a march of justice."

The country's top anti-terror body demanded Prigozhin stop illegal actions and said the Federal Security Service was investigating his comments, state-run Tass news service reported. Two top generals who had in the past worked closely with Wagner appealed to the group's fighters to ignore Prigozhin's appeals.

While it's not certain yet whether Prigozhin will follow through on his threats, said Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a political consulting firm, "the authorities' reaction is clear - they're putting down the mutiny."

"In my view, this is the end of Wagner," she said. "The system can't tolerate his activeness any longer."

Prigozhin, 62, has for months accused Shoigu and the Defense Ministry of failing to adequately support Wagner forces fighting in Ukraine, particularly during battles for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Prigozhin in May threatened to pull his troops out of the operation if they didn't get supplies but later backed down.

Tensions have been rising again in recent weeks after Shoigu set a July 1 deadline for all volunteer units to sign a formal contract with the Defense Ministry "- an order so far bluntly rejected by Prigozhin. Putin backed the ministry's demand during a meeting with Russian journalists and military bloggers last week.