Mercenary commander Yevgeny Prigozhin led his soldiers out of Ukraine and into a crucial city south of Moscow on Saturday, and the president of Russia promised to defend Russia against an armed uprising.
The rebellion, which Putin referred to as “a stab in the back,” posed the greatest challenge to his authority in more than two decades of rule.
The military command centre for Russian offensive operations in Ukraine, located in Rostov-on-Don, a city 660 miles (nearly 1,000 kilometres) south of Moscow, looks to be under the control of the private army directed by Prigozhin, according to a briefing on intelligence from the British Ministry of Defence.
In his address, Putin called the uprising by Prigozhin, whom he did not mention by name, a “betrayal” and “treason.”
“All those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment,” Putin said. “The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders.”
Prigozhin identified as a nationalist.
“Regarding the betrayal of the motherland, the president was deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our homeland,” he said in an audio message on his Telegram channel.
He claimed that despite Putin’s request, his forces would not surrender because “we do not want the country to live on in corruption, deceit, and bureaucracy.”
Alongside Russian soldiers, Prigozhin’s Wagner private military contractor has been engaged in combat in Ukraine. Although his intentions were not immediately obvious, the uprising represents a step up in Prigozhin’s conflict with Russian military authorities, whom he has accused of mishandling the Ukrainian war and hindering his forces in the field.
“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin said.
The border crossing from Ukraine to Rostov-on-Don was confirmed by Prigozhin on Saturday.
He stated that his forces had taken control of the airfield and other military facilities in the city and broadcast a video of himself at the Rostov military headquarters. Other social media footage showed military vehicles, including tanks, driving through the streets.
When entering Russia, Prigozhin claimed that his troops encountered little opposition from young conscripts since they “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.”
Putin denounced the uprising, which occurs as western nations slap sanctions on Moscow and arm Ukraine, saying that Russia is “fighting the toughest battle for its future” at the time.
“The entire military, economic and information machine of the West is waged against us,” Putin said.
After Prigozhin declared an armed uprising late on Friday, Russia’s security agencies requested his arrest.
The Kremlin responded to the threat seriously by declaring a “counterterrorist regime” in Moscow and the surrounding area. This increased security in the city while allowing for some restrictions on liberties.
It wasn’t immediately obvious how Prigozhin entered the city in southern Russia or how many soldiers he brought with him.
After Russian government soldiers struck Wagner field camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships, and artillery, Prigozhin claimed his goal was to exact revenge on Defence Minister Sergei Shogun.
After consulting with Shoigu, the head of the General Staff, they decided to eliminate Wagner, and Gerasimov gave the orders, according to Prigozin. There was no credible confirmation of his claim that Wagner’s soldiers shot down a Russian military helicopter that opened fire on a convoy of civilians.
Prigozhin urged the army to refrain from resistance and claimed to be in control of 25,000 soldiers.
Following Putin’s speech, in which the Russian leader called for unity in the face of the uprising rather than mentioning specific measures to put an end to the rebellion, officials and state media figures in the nation sought to publicly reaffirm their allegiance to the Kremlin and urged Prigozhin to back down.
“Wagner fighters must make the only right choice: to be with their people, on the side of the law, to protect the security and future of the Motherland, to follow the orders of the Commander-in-Chief,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma.
“We have one commander in chief, said Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, in a Telegram post. not three, not two. One.″
Strongman leader of the Chechnya province Ramzan Kadyrov, who previously sided with Prigozhin in his criticism of the military leadership, likewise expressed his complete support for “every word of” Putin.
“We have the commander in chief, elected by the people, who knows the situation to the slightest detail better than any strategist and businessman,” Kadyrov said. “The mutiny needs to be suppressed.”
While the result of the conflict was still uncertain, it was likely to significantly impede Moscow’s war effort at a time when Kyiv’s forces were testing Russian defences in preparation for a counteroffensive. The conflict may also affect Putin and his capacity to keep a united front, particularly if Prigozhin were to win.
The Wagner forces were instrumental in regaining control of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, the scene of the bloodiest and longest fights. But Prigozhin has grown more critical of the Russian military establishment, charging it with inefficiency and depriving his troops of ammo and weapons.
Early on Saturday, soldiers carrying assault rifles were stationed outside the Defence Ministry’s main building. Heavy military trucks and armoured vehicles could be spotted in many locations throughout central Moscow. Traffic was backed up as the area around the presidential administration near Red Square was restricted.
However, despite the increased military presence, downtown pubs and eateries were crowded with patrons. People were dancing in the street close to the entrance of one bar near the FSB headquarters.
Military contractors were required to sign contracts with the ministry before July 1 in order to comply with a requirement, but Prigozhin, whose dispute with the Defence Ministry goes back years, declined to do so. In a statement released on Friday, he stated that while he was willing to make an agreement, “they have treacherously cheated us.”
“Today they carried out a rocket strike on our rear camps, and a huge number of our comrades got killed,” Prigozhin said. The Defense Ministry denied attacking the Wagner camps.
“The evil embodied by the country’s military leadership must be stopped,” he shouted.
The Wagner forces were asked to put an end to any action against the army by Col. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the deputy commander of the Russian force coalition operating in Ukraine, who claimed that doing so would help Russia’s adversaries, who are “waiting to see the exacerbation of our domestic political situation.”
According to the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, “the violent overthrow of Putin loyalists like Shoigu and Gerasimov would cause irreparable damage to the stability of Putin’s perceived hold on power.”
During a press briefing at the White House, Adam Hodge, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said: “We are monitoring the situation and will be consulting with allies and partners on these developments.”