Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday vowed to severely punish the organizers of an armed uprising led by mercenary commander Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led troops out of Ukraine and toward Moscow.
Putin denounced the uprising as “stabbing in the back” in a speech to the nation. It was the biggest threat to his leadership in more than two decades in power.
As Prigozhin’s forces approached the capital, military trucks and armored vehicles were seen appearing in several areas of Moscow. On its southern edge, the army erected checkpoints, deployed sandbags, and placed machine guns.
Authorities have declared an “anti-terrorist regime” in the capital and surrounding areas, increasing security and restricting some movement.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin urged residents not to drive and said the city’s vital services were at a state of high availability. He declared Monday a non-working day for most residents with the exception of civil servants and some industrial enterprises.
Teams also dug a section of the highway with the express purpose of slowing the march of Wagner’s mercenaries. The entrance to Red Square has been closed, two major museums have been evacuated and a park has been closed.
Prigozhin’s own army appears to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city 660 miles (more than 1,000 km) south of Moscow that runs Russian operations in Ukraine, according to the Defense Ministry. He said.
Wagner’s troops and equipment were also present in Lipetsk province, about 360 kilometers (225 miles) south of Moscow, where authorities “are taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the population.” ”, the Governor of the region Igor Artamonov said via Telegram. not elaborate.
The dramatic developments come exactly 16 months after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II, which has killed tens of thousands, millions of people have been displaced. scattered and turned cities into ruins.
Ukrainians hope that Russia’s infighting will provide an opportunity for their troops to regain territory held by Russian forces.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Moscow was suffering from “total weakness” and that Kiev was protecting Europe from “the spread of Russian evil and chaos”.
In his speech, Putin called the actions of Prigozhin, who he did not name, “betrayal” and “treason”.
“All those who prepare to rebel will be subject to inevitable punishment,” Putin said. “The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders.”
Russia’s security services, including the Federal Security Service, or FSB, called for Prigozhin’s arrest on Friday night after he announced an armed uprising.
Prigozhin said his fighters would not surrender, because “we don’t want the country to continue living in corruption, deception and bureaucracy.”
“As for the betrayal of the country, the president is deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our homeland,” he said in an audio message on his Telegram channel.
Prigozhin’s own army fought alongside Russian regular troops in Ukraine. His goals were not immediately clear, but the uprising marks an escalation in his struggles with Russian military leaders, who he accuses of derailing the war in Syria. Ukraine and make his forces limp on the battlefield.
“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin said.
Prigozhin said he had 25,000 troops under his command and urged the army not to resist.
He posted a video of himself at the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and claimed his forces had control of the airport and other military facilities in the city. Other videos on social media show military vehicles, including tanks, on the street.
“We did not kill a single person on our way,” Prigozhin said in several of his messages posted that day, adding that his forces had seized the army headquarters. “without a single shot.” His claims cannot be independently verified. Russian authorities have also not reported any casualties so far.
The uprising comes as Russia is “fighting the hardest battle for its future”, Putin said, with the West imposing sanctions on Moscow and arming Ukraine.
“The entire Western military, economic and information apparatus is working against us,” Putin said.
A Muscovite who gave his name only as Khachik called the situation “scary”. Another man, who did not want to be identified, denounced Prigozhin’s actions as treason and said he supported the Ministry of Defense.
State-controlled television networks have led their news reports with Putin’s statement and reported on the tense situation in Rostov-on-Don. Some have shown videos on social media of citizens denouncing the Wagner army.
The broadcasters also released statements by top officials and lawmakers who voiced support for Putin and condemned Prigozhin.
In announcing the rebellion, Prigozhin said he wanted to punish Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu after he accused Russian government forces of attacking the Wagner field camp in Ukraine with missiles, helicopters and artillery. He claimed that “a large number of our comrades have perished.”
Prigozhin said his forces shot down a Russian military helicopter that fired at a civilian convoy, but there was no independent confirmation of that.
He alleges that General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, ordered the attack after a meeting with Shoigu, where they decided to destroy Wagner.
The Department of Defense denies attacking the Wagner camps.
Prigozhin, 62, a former convict, has a long relationship with the Russian leader and has won lucrative food contracts for the Kremlin that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef”.
He gained attention in the US when he and dozens of other Russian nationals were accused of running a covert social media campaign to sow discord over his 2016 presidential election victory. Donald Trump. He founded the Wagner mercenary group, which sent military contractors to Libya, Syria, several African countries, and eventually Ukraine.
After Putin’s speech in which he called for unity, officials sought to reiterate their allegiance to the Kremlin and urge Prigozhin to withdraw.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, said lawmakers were “in favor of consolidating forces” and supported Putin.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova echoed that, saying in a Telegram post that “we have a commander-in-chief. Not two, not three. One.”
Ramzan Kadyrov, the powerful leader of the Chechnya region who once sided with Prigozhin in his criticism of the military, also expressed full support for Putin’s “every word”.
“The mutiny needs to be quelled,” Kadyrov said.
While the outcome of the confrontation remains unclear, it is likely to further hamper Moscow’s war effort as Kyiv’s forces probe Russia’s defenses in the early stages of a counteroffensive. .
Wagner’s forces played an important role, capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut, the area where the bloodiest and longest battles took place. But Prigozhin became increasingly critical of the military, accusing them of incompetence and leaving his army short of ammunition.
Zelenskyy noted the rebellion on his Telegram channel and said that “anyone who chooses the path of evil destroys himself”.
“For a long time, Russia has used propaganda to cover up the weakness and stupidity of the government. And now there’s so much chaos that no lie can hide,” he said.
Prigozhin’s actions could have important implications for the war. Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at the think tank Chatham House in London, said the infighting would create confusion and potential divisions among Russian military forces.
“The Russian military in Ukraine is currently operating in a vacuum, with no clear military directives and no idea who to follow,” Lutsevych said. “This creates a unique and unprecedented military opportunity for the Ukrainian military.”
Ukrainian soldier Andrii Kvasnytsia, who attended the funeral of a comrade, said Prigozhin’s intentions towards Ukraine may be worse than Putin’s, but that infighting is still beneficial for the country.
Prigozhin, who had a feud with the Ministry of Defense for many years, refused to comply with a requirement that his forces sign a contract with the Ministry by July 1. He said on Friday that he was willing to compromise. but “they have deceived us treacherously”.
In Washington, the Institute for the Study of War said that “the violent overthrow of Putin loyalists like Shoigu and Gerasimov would do irreparable damage to the stability of Putin’s supposed power.”
Western countries are closely monitoring developments. His spokesman said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had spoken to his counterparts in other G7 countries and European Union foreign affairs representatives, adding that Blinken “reiterates that U.S. support for Ukraine will not change.”
Latvia and Estonia, two NATO countries bordering Russia, said they were increasing security at their borders.
The Kremlin said Putin spoke by phone with the leaders of Türkiye, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan about the events.
Despite speculation that Putin has left Moscow, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has denied it.
Associated Press writer Danica Kirka in London contributed.
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