• Tuesday, December 05, 2023
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Putin vows to crush Prigozhin uprising advancing on Moscow

Founder of Wagner paramilitary group says rebel convoy is heading for capital to oust army leadership
Vladimir Putin has vowed to crush an armed insurrection led by the warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, describing the rebel militia making their way through southern Russia towards Moscow as a treasonous “stab in the back”.

Facing the first coup attempt in Russia for three decades, the president said he had given “necessary orders” to tackle the Wagner paramilitary group with “decisive measures” to retake the city of Rostov-on-Don.

Russian military helicopters fired on a convoy of Wagner troops, weapons and armoured vehicles including tanks heading north towards the capital, according to unverified videos published on social media. At 1400 GMT the convoy was around 350km from Moscow’s outer ring road, where Russian troops have set up checkpoints.

The insurgency is the most serious threat to Putin’s more than two-decade long rule, and comes after months of public infighting between caterer-turned-mercenary Prigozhin and the country’s armed forces over what he described as Russia’s calamitous and botched invasion of Ukraine.

The rapid advances by Prigozhin’s forces through his home country sparked an emergency call between G7 nations and enhanced security measures in Nato countries bordering Russia, which possesses one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals.

The crisis was a “window of opportunity” for Kyiv as it seeks to push ahead with a counter-offensive to liberate territory occupied by Russian troops, Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister said, adding that the decision to invade Ukraine had triggered “the inevitable degradation of the Russian state”.

Putin’s pledge to crush the attempted coup on Saturday morning came hours after Prigozhin announced he had “blockaded” Rostov and the headquarters of Russia’s military command centre, responsible for the Ukraine operations, as armed, masked men with tanks and armoured vehicles surrounded government buildings.

Putin’s grave address, which did not mention Prigozhin by name, suggests the president has left no room for compromise with his former acolyte. “What we are dealing with is treason. Unchecked ambitions and personal interests have brought about betrayal of our country and our people,” Putin said.

Within hours, Prigozhin issued a defiant response, saying his Wagner force no longer wanted to live “under corruption, lies, and bureaucracy”.

Sixteen months of war against Ukraine has hamstrung Russia’s economy thanks to a barrage of western sanctions and an exodus of foreign capital, cost tens of thousands of lives and created a dangerous patchwork of competing militias and security forces.

Video description
Prigozhin walks into the Rostov military headquarters in southern Russia

Prigozhin walks into the Rostov military headquarters in southern Russia © Eyepress/Reuters
Prigozhin walks into the Rostov military headquarters in southern Russia
In an audio message released by his press service, Prigozhin added: “On the subject of betraying the motherland, the president is deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our motherland. We . . . will fight on.”

The head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, said on Saturday afternoon that what he described as an attempt “to shake society and fan the flames of a fratricidal civil war has failed”.

Naryshkin, a key ally of Putin, described Prigozhin’s uprising “the most horrible crime,” and urged citizens to rally around the president.

Earlier on Saturday, Prigozhin was filmed walking into the Rostov military headquarters before ranting at a deputy defence minister and a senior general about his attempt to oust the army’s leadership.

The extraordinary decision to launch a motorised assault on Moscow was part of what Prigozhin said was a “march of justice” against defence minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, commander of Russia’s invasion forces, whom he has accused of mishandling the Ukraine invasion.

“We want [Gerasimov] and Shoigu. Until they’re here, we’ll stay, blockade Rostov and head to Moscow,” Prigozhin told deputy defence minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Vladimir Alekseyev, deputy head of Russian military intelligence. “We are saving Russia.” Prigozhin claimed Wagner had opened fire on Russian forces and shot down three army helicopters.

Western leaders have so far responded to the crisis with caution. The EU moved to activate its crisis response centre after a call between the bloc’s foreign affairs chief and G7 foreign ministers, while Nato said it was “monitoring the situation.”

During his address, Putin likened Prigozhin’s “treason” to the Russian Revolution in 1917, when the Tsar was overthrown and the Bolsheviks took power in the face of popular unrest over the first world war.

“Intrigues, spats and politicking behind the army and people’s back ended in an enormous collapse, the destruction of the army and the fall of the state, the loss of huge territories, and in the end, the tragedy of civil war,” he said. “We won’t let that happen again.”

Putin acknowledged the situation in Rostov was “complicated” with “the work of civil and military command is essentially blockaded”. But he said security forces had been ordered to “stabilise” the city.

The president also said he had ordered “additional measures of an anti-terrorist nature” in Moscow and “several other regions”. The step essentially puts the FSB, Russia’s main security service, in charge of the areas and gives them the right to detain, raid and use force.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, said the events had laid bare “Russia’s weakness”.

“The longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain and problems it will have for itself later,” he tweeted. “Everyone who chooses the path of evil destroys himself.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023