Wagner chief turns on Putin and takes over military facilities in two Russian cities

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing the greatest threat to his authority in two decades after Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner paramilitary group and Putin’s former ally, launched an apparent insurrection.

Wagner has claimed control of several military facilities and threatened that their troops would march for Moscow, if Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia’s top general Valery Gerasimov do not meet with Prigozhin.

Prigozhin has been highly critical of Russia’s military leadership and their handling of the war in Ukraine, but he had always stopped short of criticizing Putin directly. That seems to have changed on Saturday.

Staring down a shock escalation of tensions that have simmered for months, the somber-looking Russian president addressed the nation, calling Wagner’s actions “a stab in the back of our country and our people.”

“All those who deliberately chose the path of treachery, who prepared an armed mutiny, who chose the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will face inevitable punishment, and will answer both to the law and to our people,” Putin said.

The president described events in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don – where Wagner claim to have taken control of a key military facility – as an insurrection.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that Putin was at the Kremlin on Saturday and that he has discussed the ongoing situation with the leaders of Belarus, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

The Kremlin said in a statement that Putin has also spoken to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, according to the statement “expressed full support” for the president. Turkey has not commented on the phone call.

Responding to Putin’s speech, Prigozhin said on Telegram that the president was “deeply mistaken.”

“We are patriots of our Motherland, we fought and are fighting,” he said in audio messages. “And no one is going to turn themselves in at the request of the president, the FSB (Russia’s domestic intelligence service) or anyone else.”

Prigozhin announced earlier on Saturday that his forces took control of several Russian military facilities and warned his forces would head for Russia’s capital if defense minister Shoigu and General Gerasimov did not meet him.

The Wagner chief claimed his forces seized the Russian Southern Military Headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don “without firing a single shot,” suggesting that “the country supports us.”

“We went with a march of justice. We were attacked from the beginning by artillery and then by helicopters, and we passed without a single shot. We did not touch a single conscript. We didn’t kill a single person along the way,” Prigozhin said.

The Rostov base plays a key role in Russia’s war on Ukraine, due to its proximity to the countries’ shared border. Wagner group also claimed to have seized Russian facilities in a second city, Voronezh, some 600 kilometers (372 miles) to the north of Rostov-on-Don.

Alexander Gusev, the governor of the Voronezh region, said the Russian military was engaging in “combat measures” in the area. And the governor of the Lipetsk region, which lies just north of Voronezh, said that Wagner was moving equipment across its territory.

Saturday’s dramatic events come off the back of Prigozhin’s very public and months-long feud with Russia’s military leadership. He has previously accused Shoigu and Gerasimov of not giving his forces ammunition and was critical of their handling of the conflict, but has always defended the reasoning for the war.

The escalation came after Prigozhin accused Russian forces of striking a Wagner military camp and killing “a huge amount” of his fighters – a claim Russia’s Ministry of Defense has denied and called an “informational provocation.”

The private military chief seemingly built influence with Putin over the course of the conflict, with his Wagner forces taking a leading role in the labored but ultimately successful assault on Bakhmut earlier this year. The capture of that city was a rare Russian gain in Ukraine in recent months, boosting Prigozhin’s profile further.

But it appears that Prigozhin had now turned not merely against the military leadership’s handling of the invasion of Ukraine, but also against the longtime Russian leader and his strategy.

On Friday, 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.

“When we were told that we were at war with Ukraine, we went and fought. But it turned out that ammunition, weapons, all the money that was allocated is also being stolen, and the bureaucrats are sitting [idly], saving it for themselves, just for the occasion that happened today, when someone [is] marching to Moscow,” Prigozhin said in Saturday Telegram messages.

“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.

Meanwhile, many top Russian officials quickly rallied to Putin’s side. Russian intelligence official, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Alekseev, posted a video about Prigozhin’s actions that day, describing it as a coup attempt.

“Only the president has the right to appoint the top leadership of the armed forces, and you are trying to encroach on his authority. This is a coup d’etat. There is no need to do this now, because there is no greater damage to the image of Russia and to its armed forces,” he added.

Sergei Naryshkin, who heads Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, described the events as an “attempted armed rebellion.”

In a statement shared by the chairman of the Russian Historical Society on Telegram, Naryshkin stated that the rebellion was an unforgivable crime “that cannot be justified by any prior achievements.”

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, another key player in the war, spoke of a “vile betrayal” by Prigozhin on Telegram. “The rebellion must be crushed, and if this requires harsh measures, then we are ready!” he said.

The FSB also responded on Friday, urging Wagner fighters to detain their leader and opening a criminal case against the militia boss accusing him of “calling for an armed rebellion.” Authorities in the capital Moscow, meanwhile, tightened security measures.

Russian security forces in body armor and equipped with automatic weapons have taken up a position near a highway linking Moscow with southern Russia, according to photos published by the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti Saturday.

Security forces also cordoned off Wagner’s headquarters in St. Petersburg on Saturday, as the state mobilized.

The Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee also announced the introduction of a counter-terrorist operation regime in Moscow, the Moscow region and Voronezh region.

In Moscow, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said Saturday on Telegram that “anti-terrorist” measures to strengthen security were being carried out in the capital as a result of “incoming information.”

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stalled earlier this year, top US officials said they saw indications of tensions between the Kremlin and the Prigozhin. Officials said the US determined as early as January there was an internal power struggle underway and have been gathering and closely monitoring intelligence on the volatile dynamic ever since.

But US and Western officials are being careful not to weigh in on the events because of how Putin could weaponize any perceived outside involvement in the escalating crisis, sources familiar with the administration’s thinking told CNN.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence update that Prigozhin’s insurrection “represents the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times.”

The briefing said some Russian forces had “likely remained passive, acquiescing to Wagner.”

And it predicted that individual decisions to support or betray Putin could tip the balance of the showdown. “Over the coming hours, the loyalty of Russia’s security forces, and especially the Russian National Guard, will be key to how the crisis plays out,” the report said.

Ukraine has reacted with calls for more support of its attempts to defend itself in the war. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Twitter said it is “time to abandon false neutrality and fear of escalation; give Ukraine all the needed weapons; forget about friendship or business with Russia. Time to put an end to the evil everyone despised but was too afraid to tear down.”

Sumber: www.cnn.com

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