Russia Wagner chief: FSB opens criminal case against Yevgeny Prigozhin

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Russia’s domestic intelligence service has opened a criminal case against Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of private military group Wagner, after he appeared to cross a red line with the Kremlin on Friday when he vowed to retaliate against the country’s military leadership for what he described as strikes launched against his forces.

The open confrontation was sparked by a series of Telegram posts on Friday, where Prigozhin accused Russian forces of striking a Wagner military camp. “A huge amount of our fighters were killed,” he said, in a radical escalation of a longstanding feud with Russia’s military leaders.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense denied the claims, calling it an “informational provocation.”

The mercenary, who has frequently criticized Russia’s traditional military hierarchy, then warned that retribution would be meted out. “We will deal with those who destroy Russian soldiers and return to the front, justice for the troops will be restored, and then justice for all of Russia,” he said.

He said that his forces would “destroy” any resistance, including roadblocks and aircraft, suggesting the disagreement could turn into warfare.

“There are 25,000 of us and we are going to find out why there is such chaos in the country. There are 25,000 of us waiting as a tactical reserve and a strategic reserve. It’s the whole army and the whole country, everyone who wants to, join us. We must end this debacle,” he said.

In a later Telegram post, Prigozhin said that his criticism of the Russian military leadership was a “march of justice” and not a coup. “This is not a military coup, this is a march of justice. Our actions do not interfere with the troops in any way,” Prigozhin said.

Wagner has played a prominent role in the Ukraine war, and Prigozhin, so far, has faced few consequences for his public feud with Russia’s military leadership – where he has accused Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and armed forces chief Valery Gerasimov of not giving his forces ammunition.

There was, however, little patience for his latest outburst.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has opened a criminal case against Prigozhin “on the fact of calling for an armed rebellion,” – a crime Russian prosecutors say is punishable by imprisonment for 12 to 20 years.

The FSB also urged Wagner fighters to revolt and detain their leader, in a statement on Friday.

“We call on the PMC fighters not to make irreparable mistakes, to stop any forceful actions against the Russian people, not to carry out Prigozhin’s criminal and treacherous orders, and to take measures to detain him,” said the statement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russian President Putin is aware of the situation and “all necessary measures are being taken,” according to state media RIA Novosti.

As security measures stepped up in Moscow late on Friday, Prigozhin said his fighters entered Russia’s Rostov region, near southeast Ukraine, and were given a hero’s welcome.

“The border guards came out to meet and hugged our fighters,” he said as he warned his forces would “destroy everything that gets in our way.”

CNN has been unable to verify his claim of entering Russian territory.

Security officials appeared to take no chances in Moscow, according to Russian state media TASS. Social media posts showed military vehicles were seen driving around the main streets of the Russian capital in the early hours of Saturday.

Russia’s top commander in Ukraine, Sergey Surovikin, urged Wagner mercenary fighters to “stop” and to “obey the will” of Putin in a Telegram video. “You can’t play into the hands of the enemy in this difficult time for the country,” he said.

Meanwhile, Russians watching State news TV channel Russia 24 had their evening programming interrupted with a message from the Russian Ministry of Defense saying Prigozhin’s claims “do not correspond to reality and are intended to misinform.”

The fiery exchanges sent a ripple through the Russian commentators, with many disagreeing as to whether the Wagner leader was calling for a coup.

“I state that the country is on the verge of an attempted military coup. Who initiated it is not yet clear. It is possible that both warring factions of the “power party” are striving for it, with the neutrality of the third (the FSB and the Security Council),” Igor Strelkov, pro-Russian military blogger, former Defense Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, wrote on Telegram.

“Everyone calm down. There is no revolution. Prigozhin straightaway clearly stated that he will not touch the authorities (except for the already “hostile” military). So far, there is no convincing evidence that (a) there was a strike at Wagner fighters and (b) Prigozhin is leading columns somewhere,” wrote Tatyana Stanovaya, Russian political scientist.

The fallout from his comments also inspired a wave of schadenfreude in Ukraine. “Classical Russian poetry… Tumultuous times are coming,” wrote Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukraine’s presidential office, wrote on Twitter.

Prigozhin and Wagner have played an unusual and informal role in Putin’s Russia. He has known the president since the 1990s; both are from St. Petersburg. Prigozhin won valuable contracts as the Kremlin’s caterer and later set up the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency, whose mission was to interfere in the US 2016 election.

The Ukraine conflict raised Prigozhin’s profile, but his comments on Friday could precipitate a fall from grace.

Earlier on Friday, Prigozhin furthered his ongoing dispute with military leaders in a highly critical video interview where he said Moscow invaded Ukraine under false pretenses devised by the Russian Ministry of Defense, and that Russia is actually losing ground on the battlefield.

The Ukrainian invasion or the so-called “special operation,” he said, was not launched because of a threat to Russia from Ukraine or NATO despite what Moscow claims, he said in the interview posted on Telegram by Wagner’s media arm.

He added that the situation in eastern Ukraine had not changed in eight years from the time Crimea was annexed, with both sides taking the occasional shot at each other, without any escalation, he said.

His comments challenge Russia’s justification for the war, with President Putin having framed the invasion of Ukraine as a “special mission” to protect Russian speakers from genocide at the hands of ​”neo-Nazis.”

Prigozhin has previously defended the reasoning for the war but has been critical of how it has been handled by the Minister of Defense, Shoigu – with whom he is directly fighting with over military contracts.

In the interview, he claimed the ministry misled Russian President Putin entirely. “Now the Ministry of Defense is trying to deceive the public, trying to deceive the President and tell the story that there was insane aggression on the part of Ukraine, and that they were going to attack us together with the NATO bloc. Therefore, the so-called special operation on February 24 was launched for completely different reasons,” he said.

The Wagner chief also accused Shoigu of deceiving Putin about the status of the Ukrainian battlefield, claiming Russian troops are on the back foot in the south of Ukraine, and that the whole invasion was a “poorly planned operation.”


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