Amid conflicts with the Kremlin, mercenaries from the Wagner Group are invading a Russian town, their boss says
The owner ofOn Friday he made his most direct challenge yet to the Kremlin, calling for an armed uprising aimed at overthrowing Russia’s defense minister. The security services reacted immediately and demanded the arrest of their leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.
In a sign of how seriously the Kremlin takes the threat, security measures have been tightened in Moscow and in Rostov-on-Don, where Russia’s Southern Region Military Headquarters is located and also controls Russia’s Southern Region Military Headquarters.
While the outcome of the confrontation was still unclear, it appeared to further hamper Moscow’s war effort as Kiev’s forces probed Russian defenses in the early stages of a counteroffensive.
Prigozhin claimed early Saturday that his troops entered Russia from Ukraine and reached Rostov. He said they encountered no resistance from young conscripts at the checkpoints and that his troops “would not fight children”.
“But we will crush anyone who stands in our way,” he said in a series of angry video and audio footage posted to social media beginning late Friday. “We’ll keep going and we’ll hold out until the end.”
He claimed that the Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, used warplanes to attack Wagner’s convoys, which were traveling alongside ordinary vehicles. Prigozhin also said his forces shot down a Russian military helicopter that was firing at a civilian convoy, but there was no independent confirmation.
“We are monitoring the situation and will consult with allies and partners on these developments,” US National Security Council spokesman Adam Hodge told CBS News in a statement. Hodge added that President Biden had been briefed on the situation.
“We are closely monitoring what appears to be a significant internal conflict between the Russian armed forces,” Sens. Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, respective chairs and vice-chairs of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “We are in touch with the intelligence community and administration as this situation evolves.”
And despite Prigozhin’s statement that Wagner convoys had arrived in Rostov-on-Don, there was still no confirmation of this on Russian social networks. Videos showed heavy trucks blocking the highways leading into the city, long convoys of National Guard trucks were seen on a road outside Rostov-on-Don, and armored vehicles rumbled through the streets.
Prigozhin said Wagner camps in Ukraine were hit by rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery fire on orders from Gerasimov after a meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, at which a decision was made to destroy Wagner.
Prigozhin called for an armed uprising on Friday to overthrow Shoigu. The security services reacted immediately and launched a criminal investigation into Prigozhin.
Prigozhin released a series of angry video and audio recordings in which he accused Shoigu of ordering a rocket attack on Wagner’s military camp in Ukraine on Friday, where his troops are fighting on behalf of Russia.
Prigozhin said his troops would now punish Shoigu with an armed uprising and urged the army not to resist.
“This is not a military coup, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin said.
The National Counter-Terrorism Committee, part of the Federal Security Service, said he was under investigation on charges of inciting an armed insurgency. The state news agency Tass said President Vladimir Putin was kept informed.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later said that Igor Krasnov, Russia’s prosecutor general, spoke with Putin about the possibility of criminal proceedings against Prigozhin, according to Tass.
Wagner’s forces played a crucial role in the Russian war in Ukraine and they managed to capture the city of Bakhmut, where the bloodiest and longest battles took place. Prigozhin has frequently criticized Russia’s military leadership, blaming it for incompetence and starving its troops of arms and ammunition, but his accusations and calls for armed insurgency on Friday presented a more direct challenge.
The Russian Defense Ministry required all military contractors to sign contracts with him before July 1, but Prigozhin, whose feud with the Defense Ministry dates back years, refused to comply.
In a statement released late Friday, he said he was ready to find a compromise with the Department of Defense, but “they treacherously betrayed us.”
“Today they launched a rocket attack on our rear camps and a large number of our comrades were killed,” he said.
Prigozhin claimed that Shoigu personally went to the Russian military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don to direct the attack on Wagner and then “cowardly” fled.
“These scum will be stopped,” he said, alluding to Shoigu.
“The evil embodied by the country’s military leadership must be stopped,” he cried, urging the army not to resist Wagner on their quest to “restore justice.”
In connection with other developments in the Ukraine war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on other countries to heed warnings that Russia may be planning an attack on an occupied nuclear power plant in order to trigger a radiation disaster.
Members of his government informed international representatives about the possible threat to the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, whose six reactors have been shut down for months. Zelenskyi said he expected other nations to “give the appropriate signals and put pressure on Moscow”.
“Our principle is simple: the world must know what the occupier is preparing. Anyone who knows must act,” said Zelenskyy late Thursday. “The world has enough energy to prevent any radiation incident, let alone a radiation disaster.”
The Kremlin spokesman has denied that the power plant is threatened by Russian forces.
The possibility of a life-threatening release of radiation has been a concern since Russian troops invaded Ukraine last year and seized the power plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. The head of the United Nations Atomic Energy Agency tried for months to negotiate the establishment of a containment perimeter to protect the facility amid repeated shelling of surrounding areas, but was unsuccessful.
The International Atomic Energy Agency noted on Thursday that “the military situation has become increasingly tense” amid a Ukrainian counter-offensive that began this month in Zaporizhia province, where the eponymous power plant is located, and in a neighboring part of Donetsk province .
Although the last of the plant’s six reactors was shut down last fall to reduce the risk of a meltdown, experts warn there could still be a radiation release if the system that keeps the reactor cores and spent nuclear fuel cool runs out of power or lose water.
During months of fighting, Russia and Ukraine traded blame over which side was increasing the threat to the power plant. On Friday, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi met with the head of the Russian state nuclear company Rosatom in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to discuss conditions at the facility. Rosatom director Alexey Likachev and other officials “stressed that they now expect concrete steps” from the UN agency to prevent Ukrainian attacks on the plant and the adjacent area, according to a statement by the Russian company, whose branches build nuclear power plants and operate.
Earlier this week, Ukrainian officials accused Russia of exploiting the power plant’s cooling system, which was already at risk from a dam collapse earlier this week that flushed water into a reservoir that uses the power plant.
Elsewhere in the southern province of Zaporizhia, Governor Yuriy Malashko reported on Friday that two people had been killed by Russian shelling over the past day. And in Kherson province, three people were killed in a Russian attack on a transport company in the capital, Governor Oleksandr Prokudin said.
According to the Air Force, Russia fired 13 cruise missiles at a military airfield in western Khmelnytskyi province overnight, but Ukrainian air defenses intercepted them all. The attack came after Russian-appointed officials said missiles fired from Ukraine had damaged a bridge serving as a vital supply link to the occupied territories of southern Ukraine. Photos showed that the Russians had built a pontoon bridge as a bypass. Ukrainian authorities reported that striking Russian soldiers were holed up in a nearby former wine factory in Henichesk. The Russian state news agency Tass reported that two people were killed in the attack.
Russian air missiles Kh-101 and Kh-555 were fired from the Caspian Sea, the Air Force said. The target airfield has not been identified, but Ukraine has an air base near the town of Starokostiantyniv in the Khmelnytskyi region.
The base houses fighter jets and bombers and was the site of an exercise five years ago involving air force personnel from the US, Ukraine and seven European countries. It has been attacked by Russia before, including in the last month.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on Friday Russia had beefed up its defense forces in southern Ukraine and stepped up efforts to gain more ground in the east in response to the early counteroffensive. Asked whether the Ukrainian military’s initial attacks would have set the stage for a larger attack, Maliar told Ukrainian TV: “We have yet to witness the main events and the main blow. And indeed, part of the reserves will be used later.”
So far, Ukrainian forces have made little headway in Zaporizhia province, one of four regions that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last year. Putin has promised to defend the regions as Russian territory.
Zelenskyi said Ukraine was fighting to expel Russian troops from those regions, as well as from the Crimea peninsula, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014 and is using as a deployment and supply route in the 16-month war. Should the counter-offensive break through Russian defenses to the south, Ukrainian forces could attempt to reach two occupied port cities on the Sea of Azov and breach Russia’s land bridge to Crimea.