(Bloomberg) -- Russia accused the powerful head of the Wagner mercenary group of mounting an armed uprising as tensions between feuding Kremlin camps over the war in Ukraine spilled spectacularly into open conflict.
President Vladimir Putin was getting round-the-clock updates from security officials on their efforts to counter “the attempt at an armed mutiny” by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Tass reported early Saturday morning in Moscow, citing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
The showdown marked the most dramatic escalation in a long-running feud between the mercenary leader and Russia’s defense establishment that’s spiraled into what is the biggest challenge to Putin’s authority since he sent troops into Ukraine 16 months ago.
There was no immediate sign of Wagner fighters mobilizing to carry out their outspoken commander’s threat, though Prigozhin claimed to have shot down a helicopter that challenged them. That couldn’t be confirmed. Still, the Kremlin was taking no chances. Authorities tightened security in the capital, including around government buildings, and put riot police on alert, Tass said.
Regulators also blocked access to Google’s news aggregator on major platforms in Russia, according to NetBlocks, an Internet-monitoring group.
In Washington, President Joe Biden is been briefed on the situation, the White House said. “We are closely monitoring what appears to be a significant internal conflict among Russian forces,” the top two members of the Senate Intelligence said in a statement.
The tensions exploded Friday when the mercenary chief posted a series of audio messages on his Telegram channel vowing to “punish” Russia’s military leaders for what he alleged attack was a missile attack on a Wagner base and the losses of “tens of thousands” of Russian troops in the war. He accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of overseeing an operation to “destroy” Wagner.
The Defense Ministry denied Prigozhin’s claims. Prosecutors opened a criminal probe into the mercenary chief under the laws banning “armed uprising” and the Federal Security Service said it was seeking to detain him and appealed to his troops not to obey his “criminal orders.”
In an audio message posted early Saturday, Prigozhin said he and his fighters had crossed the border back into Russia and were entering the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. However, there was no independent confirmation of his claims.
“There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why there is lawlessness happening in the country,” Prigozhin said. “Everyone who wants to join us, we need to end this mess.”
Though he threatened to destroy “anyone who will try to resist,” Prigozhin said “this is not a military coup. This is a march of justice.”
Putin had long appeared to tolerate the mercenary’s outbursts, relying on his troops to fight in key parts of the front. But his high profile rankled with the military brass, which regularly sought to undermine and sideline him.
Prigozhin, 62, has for months accused Shoigu and the Defense Ministry of failing to adequately support Wagner forces fighting in Ukraine, particularly during battles for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Prigozhin in May threatened to pull his troops out of the operation if they didn’t get supplies but later backed down.
While it’s not certain yet whether Prigozhin will follow through on his threats, said Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a political consulting firm, “the authorities’ reaction is clear - they’re putting down the mutiny.”
“In my view, this is the end of Wagner,” she said. “The system can’t tolerate his activeness any longer.”
Russia’s top anti-terror body demanded Prigozhin stop illegal actions, Tass said. Two top generals who had in the past worked closely with Wagner publicly appealed to the group’s fighters to ignore Prigozhin’s appeals. The country’s largest social network blocked access to at least one of his audio messages on its platform following orders from regulators, Tass reported.
The main state television channel showed a rare late-night special news update, recounting the official charges against Prigozhin and dismissing his allegations.
Frictions had been rising again in recent weeks after Shoigu set a July 1 deadline for all volunteer units to sign a formal contract with the Defense Ministry — an order so far bluntly rejected by Prigozhin. Putin backed the ministry’s demand during a meeting with Russian journalists and military bloggers last week.
Friday, Prigozhin posted a video on Telegram accusing the Defense Ministry of “deceiving” Russians and Putin about the war as he challenged Kremlin justifications for the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
The mercenary leader has increasingly put himself at odds with the Kremlin narrative about the war, while warning Russians that full mobilization and martial law are necessary to avoid defeat in Ukraine.
In an interview with a local journalist last month, he heaped praise on the performance of Ukraine’s military and scorned the “denazification and demilitarization” goals that Putin and top Kremlin officials used as justification for the war. “How did we demilitarize it? We actually militarized it,” he said. “It’s now one of the strongest armies.”
He also accused Russia’s top defense officials of using the war to enrich themselves and leaving the country unprotected following a border incursion by attackers who crossed from Ukraine.
(An earlier version of this article was corrected to reflect the appropriate attribution of the quote in paragraph ten.)
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