WASHINGTON: As mutinous Russian mercenaries barrelled towards Moscow after seizing a southern city overnight, United States President Joe Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom on Saturday, confirmed White House.
“The leaders discussed the situation in Russia. They also affirmed their unwavering support for Ukraine,” a readout said.
Biden was briefed about the unfolding situation in Russia by his national security team on Saturday morning, the White House said, adding that the president will continue to be briefed throughout the day.
A spokesperson for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that during the conversation, the four leaders had reaffirmed their commitment to continue supporting Ukraine for as long as necessary.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also spoken to counterparts from G7 nations.
The move by Wagner Group mercenaries presents Russian President Vladimir Putin with the first serious challenge to his grip on power in his 23-year rule.
Wagner troops march on Moscow
Earlier today, Russian military helicopters engaged in a firefight with a rebel convoy comprising mercenaries who had made significant progress towards Moscow after capturing a southern city overnight.
President Vladimir Putin declared his determination to suppress this armed uprising, drawing a parallel to Russia’s Civil War that took place a century ago.
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private militia, known as the Wagner group, had gained control over Rostov-on-Don, a city located near the Ukraine border with a population exceeding one million. They swiftly pushed northward through western Russia, making substantial advancements.
A Reuters journalist saw army helicopters open fire at an armed Wagner column that was advancing past the city of Voronezh with troop carriers and at least one tank on a flatbed truck. The city is more than halfway along the 1,100km (680-mile) highway from Rostov to Moscow.
Prigozhin, whose private army fought the bloodiest battles in Ukraine even as he feuded for months with the top brass, said he had captured the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District in Rostov after leading his forces into Russia from Ukraine.
In Rostov, which serves as the main rear logistical hub for Russia’s entire invasion force, residents milled about, filming on mobile phones, as Wagner fighters in armoured vehicles and battle tanks took up positions.
One tank was wedged between stucco buildings with posters advertising the circus. Another had “Siberia” daubed in red paint across the front, a clear statement of intent to sweep across the breadth of Russia.
In Moscow, there was an increased security presence on the streets. Red Square was blocked off by metal barriers.
“Excessive ambitions and vested interests have led to treason,” Putin said in a televised address, comparing the insurrection at a time of war abroad to Russia’s revolution and civil war unleashed during World War One.
“All those who deliberately stepped on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed insurrection, who took the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, will answer both to the law and to our people.”
A defiant Prigozhin swiftly replied that he and his men had no intention of turning themselves in.
“The president makes a deep mistake when he talks about treason. We are patriots of our motherland, we fought and are fighting for it,” Prigozhin said in an audio message. “We don’t want the country to continue to live in corruption and deceit.”
In a series of hectic messages overnight, Prigozhin demanded Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov come to see him in Rostov.
Western capitals said they were closely following the situation in nuclear-armed Russia. The White House said President Joe Biden was briefed.
“This represents the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times,” Britain’s defence ministry said.
“Over the coming hours, the loyalty of Russia’s security forces, and especially the Russian National Guard, will be key to how this crisis plays out.”
Putin’s grip on power may depend on whether he can muster enough loyal troops to combat the mercenaries at a time when most of Russia’s military is deployed at the front in southern and eastern Ukraine.