Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday vowed harsh punishment for the organizers of an armed rebellion spearheaded by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led his troops out of Ukraine and into a key southern city.
Putin denounced the uprising as “a stab in the back” in an address to the nation. It was the biggest threat to his leadership in over two decades in power.
Prigozhin’s private army appeared to control the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, a city 660 miles south of Moscow that runs Russian operations in Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.
Wagner troops and equipment also rolled into Russia’s Lipetsk province, about 360 kilometers (225 miles) south of Moscow, where authorities “are taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the population,” said regional Gov. Igor Artamonov, via Telegram. He did not elaborate,
Military trucks and armored vehicles were seen in central Moscow early Saturday, and soldiers with assault rifles were deployed outside the main Defense Ministry building. The area around the presidential administration near Red Square was blocked, snarling traffic.
Western countries monitored developments closely. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his counterparts in the other G7 countries and the European Union’s foreign affairs representative, his spokesman said, adding that Blinken “reiterated that support by the United States for Ukraine will not change.”
Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, said the conflict was “a civil war.”
Latvia and Estonia, two NATO countries that border Russia, said they were increasing security at their borders.
As the fast-moving events unfolded in Russia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Moscow is suffering “full-scale weakness” and that Kyiv was protecting Europe from “the spread of Russian evil and chaos.”
In his speech, Putin called the actions by Prigozhin, whom he did not mention by name, a “betrayal” and “treason.”
“All those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment,” Putin said. “The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders.”
Prigozhin said his fighters would not surrender, as “we do not want the country to live on in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”
“Regarding the betrayal of the motherland, the president was deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our homeland,” he said in an audio message on his Telegram channel.
Prigozhin’s private army, known as Wagner, has been fighting alongside regular Russian troops in Ukraine. His goals weren’t immediately clear, but the rebellion marks an escalation in his struggle with Russian military leaders, whom he accused of botching the war in Ukraine and hobbling his forces in the field.
“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin said.
Prigozhin posted video of himself at the military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and claimed his forces had taken control of the airfield and other military facilities in the city. Other videos on social media showed military vehicles, including tanks, on the streets.
“We didn’t kill a single person on our way,” Prigozhin said in one of his several messages posted as the day went on, adding that his forces seized the military headquarters “without a single gunshot.” His claims could not be independently verified. The Russian authorities haven’t reported any casualties so far, either.
In a sign of how seriously the Kremlin took the threat, authorities declared a “counterterrorist regime” in Moscow and its surroundings, allowing restricted freedoms and enhancing security in the capital.
The 62-year-old Prigozhin, a former convict, has long ties to the Russian leader and won lucrative Kremlin catering contracts that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.”
He gained attention in the U.S. when he and a dozen other Russian nationals were charged with operating a covert social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord ahead of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory, part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Wagner forces have played a crucial role, capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut, an area where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place. But Prigozhin has increasingly criticized the military brass, accusing it of incompetence and of starving his troops of munitions.
In Washington, the Institute for the Study of War said “the violent overthrow of Putin loyalists like Shoigu and Gerasimov would cause irreparable damage to the stability of Putin’s perceived hold on power.”
The Kremlin said Putin spoke by phone with the leaders of Turkey, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan about the events.