The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed his forces have entered Russia to remove the country’s top military leadership.
The Wagner chief on Saturday claimed his forces were in control of military sites in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. The military headquarters in the city oversees the fighting in Ukraine. Other videos posted on social media showed military vehicles, including tanks, on the streets outside.
Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the rebellion, saying it was “a stab in the back of our country and our people”.
“All those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment. The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders,” Putin said in a televised address to the nation on Saturday.
Earlier, Russia’s security services said they had opened a criminal investigation into Prigozhin for launching what they describe as a mutiny.
The Wagner chief also questioned the official Kremlin version of why Russia invaded Ukraine.
For months, Prigozhin has been accusing Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov, of incompetence, but this was the first time he rejected Russia’s core justifications for invading Ukraine.
“The defence ministry is trying to deceive society and the president and tell us a story about how there was crazy aggression from Ukraine and that they were planning to attack us with the whole of NATO,” Prigozhin said in a video clip released on Telegram by his press service on Friday.
“The special operation was started for different reasons,” he said.
“The war was needed … so that Shoigu could become a marshal, … so that he could get a second ‘Hero’ [of Russia] medal. The war wasn’t needed to demilitarise or denazify Ukraine.”
Prigozhin posted a series of angry video and audio recordings on Friday in which he accused Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu of ordering a rocket attack on Wagner’s field camps in Ukraine, where his troops are fighting on behalf of Russia.
Prigozhin said his troops would now punish Shoigu in an armed rebellion and urged the Russian army not to offer resistance.
“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin declared.
Russia’s defence ministry has denied carrying out the rocket attack.
Russia’s National Antiterrorism Committee, which is part of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, said the Wagner chief would be investigated on charges of calling for an armed rebellion.
The FSB called Prigozhin’s statements on Friday a “stab in the back to Russian troops” and said they amounted to fomenting an armed conflict within Russia.
The FSB urged Wagner’s fighters to arrest Prigozhin and told them to refuse to follow his “criminal and treacherous orders”.
Riot police and Russia’s National Guard have been scrambled to tighten security at key facilities in Moscow, including government agencies and transport infrastructure, the state’s TASS news agency reported.