The head of the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary group that has seen much of the toughest fighting in Ukraine, on Friday accused Russia of killing thousands of fighters and vowed to stop the “evil” of the military leadership. Russia, in turn, announced it was investigating the outspoken leader on charges of “armed mutiny.”
“Those who destroyed our lads, who destroyed the lives of many tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, will be punished. I ask that no one offer resistance,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the paramilitary group, said in a series of audio messages on his official Telegram channel.
In the audio, Prigozhin said, without providing evidence, that Russia’s military leadership was responsible for the deaths of 2,000 fighters.
He warned that his troops would move to punish Russia’s defense minister and urged the army not to offer resistance. Prigozhin declared that “this is not an armed rebellion, but a march of justice.”
Officials in Russia quickly launched a criminal investigation of Prigozhin “on charges of armed mutiny.” Russian state TV interrupted regular programming to announce that Prigozhin’s claims were “fake and nothing more than provocation.”
Russia’s FSB security service accused Prigozhin of “a ‘stab in the back’ of Russian servicemen,” and accused him of calling for an armed civil conflict.
The service called on Wagner fighters “not to make irreparable mistakes, to stop any forceful actions against the Russian people, not to carry out the criminal and treacherous orders of Prigozhin, and to take measures to detain him.”
President Vladimir Putin had “been informed of all the events around Prigozhin. Necessary measures are being taken,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.
In the audio messages on Telegram, the Wagner Group chief accused Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of ordering a rocket strike on Wagner’s field camps in Ukraine, where its soldiers are fighting on behalf of Russia against Ukranian forces.
The claims have not been verified.
An unverified video posted on the “Razgruzka Wagner” (Wagner’s Combat Vest) Telegram channel showed a scene in a forest where small fires were burning and trees appeared to have been broken by force.
It carried the caption: “A missile attack was launched on the camps of PMC Wagner. Many victims. According to eyewitnesses, the strike was delivered from the rear, that is, it was delivered by the military of the Russian Ministry of Defense.”
Prigozhin vowed to avenge the incident: “There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why chaos is happening in the country.”
But he also added: “This is not a military coup.”
Prigozhin, whose frequent tirades on social media belie his limited role in the war as head of the Wagner private military company, has for months been openly accusing the defense minister and Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov, of rank incompetence.
On Friday, for the first time he dismissed Russia’s core justifications for invading Ukraine in February of last year in what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation.”
“The war was needed … so that [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu could become a marshal … so that he could get a second ‘Hero’ [of Russia] medal,” Prigozhin said in another audio message. “The war wasn’t needed to demilitarize or denazify Ukraine.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not gone as anticipated. Russia has lost more than 100,000 fighters killed or wounded since December, the U.S. estimated earlier this year.
Russia’s Defense Military has been trying to entice military-age men to join in large numbers and avoid the need for a new wave of conscription.
Russia has denied the U.S. assessment of 100,000 casualties, which includes 20,000 killed.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed.