RIGA, Latvia — Russia’s Federal Security Service late Friday announced a criminal case against Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin, accusing him of “incitement to armed rebellion” after he declared an open conflict with Russia’s military leadership and called on Russians to join 25,000 Wagner fighters against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other top commanders.
Prigozhin — whose private military company helped Russia seize the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Moscow’s only significant territorial gain this year — accused the Russian military Friday of carrying out a strike on a Wagner camp, and he appeared to threaten Shoigu, declaring, “This scum will be stopped!”
At least one senior general — Vladimir Alekseyev, the deputy head of Russia’s military intelligence — accused Prigozhin of attempting a “state coup,” but there was no evidence of an attempted overthrow of the government.
In a rare late-night statement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that President Vladimir Putin had been informed about the situation and that “all necessary measures” were being taken.
Security was tightened in Moscow at government facilities and key infrastructure, and the Russian National Guard and security forces were on alert, Tass, the state-owned news agency, reported.
“Special services and law enforcement agencies, namely the Defense Ministry, Federal Security Service, Interior Ministry and the Russian Guard, constantly report to the president in a round-the-clock mode on the measures taken in the context of the implementation of his earlier instructions,” Peskov said in a later statement in the early hours of Saturday.
The bizarre and chaotic events Friday were the latest sign of the damage that Putin’s war in Ukraine has inflicted in Russia over the past 16 months. The country’s economy is battered by Western sanctions, and hundreds of thousands of citizens fled a conscription drive last fall, even as the military campaign in Ukraine largely stalled and Putin’s claimed annexation of Ukrainian territory fell far short of reality.
The announcement of the criminal case by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, signaled that Prigozhin could face imminent arrest for comments in which he declared that he would lead a “march of justice” against his enemies in Russia’s Ministry of Defense. The Wagner leader denied that he was attempting a military coup.
Prigozhin has been in a running, months-long feud with Shoigu and other regular military commanders, including over complaints that Wagner fighters were denied sufficient ammunition. But Prigozhin’s comments late Friday amounted to an extraordinary, hostile challenge to Russian military authorities, and suggested that the dispute was on the brink of spilling into open warfare.
In a series of furious audio messages, Prigozhin accused Shoigu of flying to Rostov in southern Russia specifically to launch a missile strike against Wagner, before fleeing the area late Friday.
The Russian Defense Ministry responded swiftly to Prigozhin’s threats, denying his claim that the military had struck a Wagner camp, calling it “an informational provocation.”
“The armed forces of the Russian Federation continue to carry out combat missions on the line of contact with the armed forces of Ukraine in the area of the special military operation,” the ministry said.
In a bid to resolve the crisis, senior Russian general Sergei Surovikin, deputy commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine, who reportedly has good relations with Prigozhin, called on him to halt his threatened action.
“I urge you to stop. The enemy is just waiting for the internal political situation to worsen in our country,” Surovikin said, warning Prigozhin not to play into the hands of the enemy.
“Before it is too late, it is necessary to obey the will and order of the popularly elected president,” Surovikin said in a video. “Stop the columns. Return them to the points of permanent deployment. Solve all problems only by peaceful means under the leadership of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief.
Prigozhin on Friday posted a video purporting to show the strike on the camp where he said many of his fighters were killed. It depicted rising smoke and signs of destruction but no evidence of the large number of casualties that he claimed.
After a meeting that he described as a Wagner war commanders’ council, Prigozhin posted an audio message on Telegram late Friday warning that “those who destroyed our guys today, and tens of thousands of lives of Russian soldiers, will be punished. I ask no one to resist.”
Any resistance would be deemed a threat and immediately destroyed, including roadblocks and aircraft, he declared.
Prigozhin, a billionaire, earned his fortune and the nickname “Putin’s chef” through government catering contracts, including for schools and the military. In addition to being a Wagner founder, he owned the Internet Research Agency, a notorious operator of “troll farms,” and he has boasted of meddling in United States elections, for which he was placed under sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department.
In his running feud with the regular Russian military, Prigozhin repeatedly accused Shoigu and other commanders of denying his fighters sufficient ammunition in the long campaign to seize Bakhmut. Earlier Friday, he issued a separate statement claiming that the military leadership had tricked Putin into going to war in Ukraine in February 2022 by alleging nonexistent threats.
“I ask everyone to remain calm, not to succumb to provocations, to stay in their homes. It is advisable not to go outside along the route of our journey,” Prigozhin said, apparently planning to confront Shoigu and the chief of the Russian general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, both of whom he had bitterly criticized in a video earlier Friday.
Minutes later, Prigozhin released more furious audio messages. “This is not a military coup, this is a march of justice,” he said in one. “Our actions do not interfere with the troops in any way.”
“Shoigu has just fled from Rostov,” he yelled in another message, in obvious rage. “At 9 p.m. he ran as cowardly as a woman, so as not to explain why he raised helicopters to destroy our guys, why he launched missile strikes! This scum will be stopped!”
Prigozhin continued to issue statements into the early hours of Saturday, claiming shortly after 2 a.m. that “we have crossed the border,” and that “we are entering Rostov” region. But there was no visual evidence of any Wagner group column, nor of his own presence.
“We are not going to fight children,” Prigozhin said. “We are only fighting professionals but if someone stands in our way, we will destroy everything. We are extending our hand. Do not spit in it. We are going forward, till the end.”
During an emergency state television broadcast just after 1:30 a.m., the presenter stated that the video that Prigozhin released claiming an alleged strike on the Wagner camp appeared to have been staged. The presenter cited official statements on the crisis from the Defense Ministry, FSB and others.
Prigozhin has demonstrated fierce loyalty to Putin, and Wagner forces have been useful to the Kremlin in the Ukraine war, as they were in promoting Moscow’s interests in other conflicts, including in Syria, Libya and numerous African countries.
As Russian military forces stalled or lost ground in Ukraine, Wagner succeeded recently in taking control of Bakhmut after a bloody battle that took months and cost thousands of Wagner lives — including those of former convicts whom Prigozhin personally recruited from prison to join the fight in exchange for pardons.
In another stunning claim Friday night, Prigozhin accused Shoigu of hiding the bodies of 2,000 dead Russian soldiers in a bid to mask Russia’s true casualty numbers in Ukraine.
Baza, a Russian news outlet, reported that Russian armored vehicles were reinforcing security in Rostov, including by blocking streets. The report could not be independently confirmed but was consistent with the increased security measures in Moscow.
Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said Prigozhin’s allegations were false. “We demand an immediate halt to illegal actions,” the committee said.
Despite his loyalty, Prigozhin lately appeared to have been falling out of favor with Putin, who recently sided with Shoigu’s demand that Wagner and other “volunteer” fighting formations sign military contracts putting them firmly under the Defense Ministry’s control. Prigozhin, resisting the demand, came up with his own contract.
The Wagner founder seemed to cross a new red line in his video comments earlier Friday when he shot down Putin’s central main pretexts for invading Ukraine, declaring that Russia faced no extraordinary security threat from Ukraine. He said that Russian military officials had deceived Putin into going to war.
The war, he claimed, was designed by Russian officials and oligarchs who had plundered two separatist regions in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, for years, but grew greedy and wanted to plunder all of Ukraine.
“The war was not needed to return our Russian citizens to our bosom and not to demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine,” Prigozhin said.
Prigozhin, who has a high profile globally and domestically, gained a reputation in Russian nationalist circles for telling harsh truths about the war that the military would rather hide.
But his Friday claim that Putin had been deceived went well beyond his frequent rants against top military officials and Russian oligarchs, because it undermined Putin’s key argument to Russians — and leaders in the Global South — that Russia had “no choice” but to launch a preemptive invasion. Putin has argued, without evidence, that Ukraine was committing “genocide” against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and was planning a major attack with NATO’s support on Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine’s Donbas region.
There was no visual evidence that Prigozhin or Wagner forces were on the move in a “march of justice.”
Fontanka, a news outlet based in St. Petersburg, Prigozhin’s home city, reported that Prigozhin was in Moscow on Friday evening before 7 p.m. but that his current whereabouts were unknown.
Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, of the consultancy R. Politik, wrote on social media that Friday’s events signaled the end of Prigozhin as a power player in Russia as well as the end of his mercenary force.
“Now that the state has actively engaged, there’s no turning back,” Stanovaya wrote. “The termination of Prigozhin and Wagner is imminent. The only possibility now is absolute obliteration, with the degree of resistance from the Wagner Group being the only variable.”
She said that for the FSB and military General Staff, “it is clearly a holiday — at last Prigozhin will get hit in the head.”