Russia’s President Vladimir Putin delivers a video address. Gavril Grigorov/Sputnik/AFP/Getty
Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.Update, June 24, 2:30 p.m. ET: Wagner Group Chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin said his forces were turning around. The announcement came after President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus reportedly made a deal with Prigozhin to halt the march towards Moscow.
Months of growing tensions between Vladimir Putin, Russia’s military, and the private mercenary Wagner Group fighting for Russia in Ukraine have escalated into a full-fledged crisis. Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the Wagner chief who has become known as “Putin’s chef” over his lucrative catering business deals with the Kremlin, claimed on Friday night that the Russian military had attacked and killed “a huge amount” of his fighters. He vowed retribution and called it a “march of justice.” In response, the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s intelligence agency, accused Prigozhin of calling for an “armed rebellion” and called for his hired soldiers to arrest him. The mercenary group and Russia’s Ministry of Defense increasingly have clashed over tactics in the war in Ukraine and the supply of ammunition.
The situation quickly escalated as the Wagner Group claimed to have taken control of Russia’s key military facilities in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. A Ministry of Defense intelligence update from the United Kingdom described the apparent rebellion as “the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times.” Wagner convoys are reportedly heading toward Moscow—which is under increased security—and have been sighted in Voronezh, about 300 miles south of the capital. Russia has established a “counter-terrorist” operation in the Moscow and Voronezh regions. Earlier this year it was estimated that up to 50,000 fighters from the Wagner Group were in Ukraine, having played an important role in supporting Russian forces in the fight for control of the city of Bakhmut. The Wagner Group has been accused of perpetrating war crimes in Ukraine, Africa, and the Middle East.
In a televised address on Saturday morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Prigozhin’s actions were “a stab in the back against our nation and our country.” He added: “Anyone who consciously went on the path of betrayal, who prepared the armed mutiny, went on the path of blackmail and terrorist actions, will be punished inevitably. They will answer before the law and our people.” Prigozhin fired back in an audio message on Telegram, saying Putin “makes a deep mistake when he talks about treason. We are patriots of our motherland, we fought and are fighting for it.” On Twitter, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy weighed in, saying, “Russia’s weakness is obvious.”
“Putin’s never looked weaker than right now, in the Ukraine war and at home,” Ian Bremner, a political scientist and president of the Eurasia Group, tweeted, “which is welcome. and extremely dangerous.” US officials are monitoring the power struggle closely.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.