The long-standing verbal war between Wagner mercenary group kingpin Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian military and political leadership took a kinetic turn Friday that could lead to a potential coup attempt.
Author's note: Check out our latest post that continues our rolling coverage with all new information here.
Prigozhin, in audio recordings posted on his Telegram channel is threatening a march on Moscow after claiming his troops were attacked by Russian forces.
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed any statements about it attacking Prigozhin are "untrue and an informational provocation" and that the war on Ukraine continues apace. Meanwhile, the official Russian news agency RIA Novosti is reporting on its Telegram channel that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russian President Vladimir "Putin is aware of the situation unfolding around Prigozhin, all necessary measures are being taken."
Author's note: we are running a rolling update, which will be posted at the bottom of this story.
Prigozhin, whose declarations have long called into question how he could survive to continuously make them, is now a top target of Russian authorities.
"According to the National Anti-Terrorism Committee, the allegations spread on behalf of Yevgeny Prigozhin have no basis," RIA Novosti reported about the claims the Wagner leader made earlier in the day about Russia's military leadership failures. "In connection with these statements, the FSB of Russia initiated a criminal case on the fact of calling for an armed rebellion. We demand that illegal actions be stopped immediately.
In the wake of what he said was a deadly attack on his troops, the Wagner boss - Putin's former 'chef' - said he was going to march on Moscow.
"The command council of the Wagner Private Military Company has reached a decision," Prigozhin said in an audio message delivered on his Telegram channels Friday. "The evil that the country's military leadership perpetuates must be stopped. They disregard the lives of soldiers...Therefore, those who have killed our guys today, those who have taken the lives of tens, many tens of thousands of Russian soldiers will be punished."
"There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why this chaos is happening in the country," said Prigozhin. That figure "is a tactical reserve, but the strategic reserve is our whole army and the whole country. Everyone who wants, join us. We must end this disgrace can add this."
Prigozhin asked "that no one resist. Anyone who attempts to resist we will consider to be a threat and eliminate them immediately, including any checkpoints in our way, any aircraft above our heads. I ask everyone to remain calm, not to succumb to provocations, to stay in their homes, preferably not to go out into the streets along our route. After we finish what has been started, we will return to the front and defend our homeland."
Prigozhin claimed many of his troops were killed by Russian forces today.
“A missile attack was launched on the camps of PMC Wagner,” Prigozhin stated on one of his Telegram channels. “Many victims. According to eyewitnesses, the strike was delivered from the rear, that is, it was delivered by the military of the RF Ministry of Defense.”
However, some Russian propagandists are suggesting that the attack was carried out by Ukraine or its allies to stir an already boiling pot.
Either way, the alleged attack came after Prigozhin had earlier in the day said Russia was losing the war and accused Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the Russian Army chief of the general staff, of "genocide" against their own people "for the murder of tens of thousands of Russian citizens and the transfer of Russian territories to the enemy."
"Two realities on the ground now, as of today, [the] Russian Army is retreating in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia directions," Prigozhin said. The Ukrainian Armed Forces "are pushing the Russian Army."
Gerasimov and Shoigu "should be held responsible for the genocide of the Russian people, the murder of tens of thousands of Russian citizens and the transfer of Russian territories to the enemy," said Prigozhin. "Moreover, the transfer is deliberate, just like the murder of Russian citizens and genocide. Shoigu has a genocide on a national basis.”
Prigozhin said the war was started on false pretenses.
The initial all-out invasion launched Feb. 24, 2022, was planned "by a bunch of fools" and "degenerates" who sent troops "naked and barefoot toward Kyiv."
Shoigu "sat cowardly in his office and at the end of the very first day wondered very much why the thousands of missiles that had been spent, that had been launched without proper intelligence, without having anything, just hadn't gone anywhere..."
Continuing his rant, Prigozhin said "in the first days of the war, Shoigu killed thousands of Russian soldiers. He destroyed the most combat-ready part of the army, and combat-ready was very little part of the army, because in the army for many years were raised the fools and any active man, he either left the army or was ready to leave."
Igor Girkin, an influential former military leader in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic who is also known by the name Igor Strelkov, said on his Telegram channel that Prigozhin's message, "if not a fake...[it] is the very [definition of a] military mutiny and coup."
As of late Friday night Moscow time, Girkin said that there was no indication that Wagner troops were actually on the move.
"So far, no information has been received about clashes between the Wagners and the Moscow Region," he said. "Sources do not observe any columns, etc. anywhere."
In the Rostov region, "all security forces have been put on high alert, but so far everything is quiet. Let's hope that Prigozhin announced a coup, but Wagner themselves do not intend to participate in it."
This is an extremely volatile and rapidly evolving situation. We will provide updates as we learn more information.
Author's note: Latest updates are placed at the top in the update section below, oldest ones on the bottom in chronological order.
UPDATE: 10:00 a.m. EST
Check out our latest post that continues our rolling coverage with all new information here.
Update: 6:00 a.m. EST
Russian Ka-52s attacked a fuel depot in Voronezh in order to keep it out of Wagner hands. Incredible video of this strike is now surfacing. Starving Wagner of fuel is clearly an objective of the Russian MoD.
Wagner forces shot down a twin turboprop aircraft, possibly an AN-26, in Voronezh Oblast. We had seen Wagner road-mobile SAM systems in the region earlier.
Videos show armor on the move on the M4 highway towards despite closures to the north near the approaches to Moscow.
Update: 4:35 a.m. EST
Citizens of Roston are getting more confrontational with Wagner forces after Putin's speech.
There are some reports of fighting underway in the Voronezh region, north of Roston. The video below claims to show this but it cannot be confirmed.
Some heavy weaponry on the roads in Voronezh Oblast, including Pantsir-S1 air defenses.
Multiple reports of Russian forces being moved south towards Rostov.
And we are getting another better view of one of the helicopter Wagner supposedly shot down.
Update: 4:19 a.m. EST
Some key considerations at this juncture now that Putin has disclosed his orders/intentions:
Among the big questions now are who will actually fight who? Will Russian regular troops kill their fellow Russians? Will the federal security services? Who will join Prigozhin? The longer this lasts the worse it is for Putin. The next hours will be historic and crucial.
Prigozhin has likely known his days were numbered for some time. We have watched his statements get more damning every day for months. We featured them near daily in our Situation Report updates. Many weeks ago he threatened to do exactly this. Now those threats we know were not hyperbole. He now has nothing to lose and a private army behind him as well as a docile stronghold. The Kremlin not stopping him before he took Roston was massive failure, but really it is not surprising based on Russia's glaring limitations in time sensitive targeting, surveillance, and interdiction. These are issues we have been highlighting since the invasion began. Yet how did Russia not see it coming from an intelligence perspective? These were forces fighting on their own side. This took planning, communications, logistics etc. Massive intelligence failure and/or political failure, the latter of which if warning signs in the form of clear intelligence was not acted upon. Considering he was saying what he would do for weeks, this is really not even up for debate.
And then there is the question of possible fractures at the top. Will this opportunity be seized by others in the Russia power structure? What about the security services? Putin's own dog turning on him and attacking him looks very, very bad.
How will foreign powers seize on this opportunity? Although far from ideal, it is a massive fissure and can be exploited. What about Ukraine? Once again, the longer it lasts, the more opportunity there will be for adversary exploitation of this crisis.
Finally, what about the battlefield? What will Russian troops, many of them forced into service, do knowing Wagner has defected? What will this do for morale and willingness to fight? Maybe more importantly, what will the loss of thousand of Wagner troops at key areas of the battlefield mean? How will Ukraine exploit it?
These are just some of the glaring questions going forward.
Update: 3:46 a.m. EST
Putin has addressed his nation, saying that the act by Prigozhin and his Wagner fighters was mutiny and treason and it will be dealt with harshly.
He stated that "Russia today is leading the most difficult war for its future, repelling the aggression of neo-nazis and their handlers. Against us, the whole military, economical and information machines of the West are turned." And continued, saying "Repeat: any internal mutiny is a deadly threat to our state, to us as a nation. It’s a strike against our nation, our people. And our actions to defend the fatherland from such a threat will be brutal. Anyone who consciously went on the path of betrayal, who prepared the armed mutiny, went on the path of blackmail and terrorist actions, will take an inevitable punishment."
You can read the entire speech that has been translated by the excellent @wartranslated in the tweet below:
Wagner's response is clear. The longtime relationship between Prigozhin and Putin is clearly over. And such a statement clearly means one thing:
Banners are being taken down in Russia promoting Wagner recruiting, which has been a key aspect of resourcing the manpower for the war effort.
2:34 a.m. EST
We have seen repeated reports of a column of Wagner forces moving toward and eventually into Voronezh. Wagner is now saying they have taken control of the town and its military installations. Voronezh sits roughly 300 miles north of Roston, roughly half way between Roston and Moscow. The fact that Wagner's operation is now in or very near two cities separated by hundreds of miles, one of which is far closer to Moscow, puts even more pressure on the Kremlin.
The Russian Fighterbomber telegram account says Wagner is not in Voronezh just yet.
Traffic north of Voronezh heading toward Moscow has been totally stopped for some time. Authorities are telling people not to use the highway.
Other roads are blocked further south, as well.
Russian MoD has posted a statement to Wagner fighters telling them they have been misled by Prigozhin's 'armed rebellion' and that they should contact authorities as soon as possible so they can be returned to 'places of permanent deployment.'
Meanwhile, in Roston, Wagner troops are mingling with the population that seems to be going about their business relatively unphased.
Fighterbomber Telegram channel says reports of Wagner downing two Russian helicopters are true.
12:55 p.m. EST
Fairly remarkable video of Prigozhin, decked out for battle, meeting with Deputy Defense Minister Yevkurov at the Southern Military District headquarters the Wagner forces surrounded has emerged. The entire scene is amazingly calm.
He then does a direct address as to his intentions. Stopping the war is not one of them:
If what he is saying is correct, and we really aren't seeing anything to contradict it, he is in control of all the military installations in and around the city and, it seems at least, that he is basically seized the Southern Military District, or at least is acting as something of an overseer. He says nobody has been fired from their jobs and the war operations in Ukraine will continue without any interference from him. He states his same grievances with Russia's top military leadership.
Here are his recent statements on Telegram:
Under the control of PMC "Wagner" the military facilities of Rostov, including the airfield, so that aviation does not strike at the columns of the "Orchestra."
At the same time, aircraft for combat work and ambulances leave regularly, there is no interference with the special operation.
"The main command headquarters is operating normally, when they tell you that the Wagner PMC interfered and something fell on the front, that's not why it fell on the front."
PMC "Wagner" will block Rostov and go to Moscow until we get the Chief of the General Staff and Shoigu - Prigozhin. ㅤ
The head of the Wagner PMC is negotiating with Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Lieutenant General Vladimir Alekseev in Rostov.
“Fights take place in places where the military leadership gives false information to the fighters, and therefore skirmishes occur.
Where the soldiers meet us, the National Guard and the police, they wave their hands joyfully and many of them say: "We want to go with you."
There are already 60-70 people who have joined us, although we have come a little way. I think half the army is ready to go with us."
Evgeny Prigozhin on the situation in Rostov. The soldiers cordoned off the building of the headquarters of the Southern Military District.
According to information from the field, Valery Gerasimov left the building of the Rostov headquarters, leaving his subordinates to negotiate.
Considering how bizarre this situation is, it's possible that we could see some sort of deal worked out with Moscow to address some of his grievances. Then again, letting him get away with what he has done and what he has said seems like a very unlikely proposition.
Meanwhile, there are reports that Wagner headquarters in St. Petersburg is being raided by Russian federal security services.
Also worth noting, it looks as if Prigozhin was sitting talking to the same Lieutenant General Vladimir Alekseyev that went on air just hours prior to tell Wagner troops not to join in Prigozhin assault.
It appears the only damage to Rostov we have seen so far has been from this tank that got stuck between two pillars flanking a driveway.
11:55 p.m. EST
Amazingly calm scene considering the circumstances:
Vasily Golubev, the governor of the Rostov region, said the follow on telegram:
"I gave the necessary instructions to the Rostov city administration and the life support services of Rostov to take the necessary measures to preserve the normal functioning of all city systems. I keep the issue under control, regularly listening to reports. Once again I ask Rostovites not to leave their homes unnecessarily and not to come to the center of the Don capital."
The current situation requires the maximum concentration of all forces to maintain order. Law enforcement agencies are doing everything necessary to ensure the safety of residents of the area. I ask everyone to stay calm and do not leave the house without the need."
What is especially odd is that the Russian milbloggers have been silent.
Update: 11:08 p.m. EST
More imagery and confirmation of Wagner forces operating freely in Rostov. The scenes out of there are extremely bizarre, with some locals just watching this all go down in the streets.
And even the cops look like they are confused with the situation.
There are additional reports that some of Wagner's forces have headed north, towards Moscow.
Update: 10:45 p.m. EST
Becoming more clear now that these are indeed some Wagner forces.
Update: 10:10 p.m. EST
Heavy armor and infantry now seen in Rostov. Identifying between Russian troops and Wagner forces is a major challenge. Some claims that forces are massing near the headquarters of the Southern Military District, which would be an outright logical objective for a breakaway Wagner force. Still, this cannot be confirmed.
Update: 10 p.m. EST
ISW is reporting that is believes Prigozhin has launched an armed rebellion to force out Russian MoD's leadership.
Significant attack helicopter activity over Rostov at dawn:
Tanks are now seen in areas of the city, although who they belong to remains unclear.
Update: 9:20 p.m. EST
There are some indications that this could be the Wagner column, but still far from conclusive.
Meanwhile, Kyiv just got hit by a missile barrage.
And unverified video of the supposed shoot-down of a Russian helicopter by Wagner forces:
More videos of various military convoys supposedly from the Rostov area:
Update: 8:53 p.m. EST
Another dispatch from Prigozhin says his forces shot down a helicopter that attacked their column. Assuming this is true, and that this was a Russian helicopter, as it almost certainly would have been, this would be a clear Wagner of Russian military action.
The translation of his latest message reads:
"The Head of General Staff is not calming down: a mistake of any African dictator is to deal air strikes at civilian areas. Right now in the air are two planes numbered 523 and 546 that are trying now to deal these strikes. Remember, lads. The motherland will not forgive you for strikes at your own territory. You should have the courage to strike the enemy territory when our infantry is moving. Thus, these speculations saying that we are interfering with someone fighting on the front are speculations. We do not interfere with anyone. We interfere with criminals savings their asses, who destroyed around 100k Russian soldiers. Gerasimov and Shoygu."
Video also emerged at around the same time of his dispatch showing firing into the air and the sound of other gunfire, although what this video exactly shows, who is doing the firing, and if it was this same incident is not knonw.
Still no confirmed signs of the Wagner leader's location or of the armored column that is now supposedly in Russia. Take it all with a grain of salt until we get more substantiated evidence that this is indeed happening.
Update: 8:24 p.m. EST
There are growing rumors, although they remain unverified, that Wagner columns have reached the Rostov region in Russia, which borders the Donbas where Prigozhin’s forces had been deployed.
Reports are indicating that the Putin regime has shut down traffic along the M-4 highway out of Rostov-on-Don that heads towards Moscow.
There are also videos emerging purporting to show military equipment in the city of Rostov-on-Don, a little more than 50 miles from the Ukrainian border and roughly 100 miles from the front lines, where the Wagner column was supposedly headed to.
Please remember, we still have seen no visual evidence of a Wagner column heading toward or into Russian territory. This is a very murky situation and everything has to be taken with a grain of salt until we get confirmation.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's head of intelligence and the man that many are wondering may have had a hand in this whole ordeal, says it's real.
Update: 8:11 p.m. EST
In a new audio message, Prigozhin claims that General Gerasimov ordered military jets to attack his columns moving along the roads among cars and trucks. He added that the pilots are refusing those orders.
Update: 7:39 p.m. EST
National Security Council spokesman Adam Hodge tells The War Zone:
“We are monitoring the situation and will be consulting with allies and partners on these developments.”
There are additional reports of major security reinforcements in Moscow and to a lesser degree Rostov, the latter of which borders Ukraine on the Sea of Azov. Rostov is where Prigozhin and thousands of Wagner fighters are supposedly headed. Once again, everything is very murky right now, so keep that in mind.
Update: 6:53 p.m. EST
Russian security forces appear to be enacting long-standing measures to deal with the potential for a coup.
"Security measures have been strengthened in Moscow, all the most important facilities, state authorities and transport infrastructure facilities have been taken under enhanced protection," the official TASS news agency reported on its Telegram channel, citing law enforcement agencies.
Russian Guard units were placed on alert, according to TASS.
This is the kind of event Russian security services have been training to deal with for the past several months.
Update 6:24 p.m. EST
The Russian MoD claims Ukrainian troops are on the move in Bakhmut trying to take advantage of the distractions.
"Taking advantage of Prigozhin's provocation to disrupt the situation, the Kyiv regime is concentrating units of the 35th Marine Brigade and the 36th Mechanized Brigade of the [Armed Forces of Ukraine] in Bakhmut tactical direction at the initial line for offensive actions," the MoD reported on its Telegram channel. "The servicemen of the Yug Group of Forces are defeating the enemy with air and artillery strikes."
Update: 5:53 p.m. EST
Russian Gen. Sergei Surovikin, considered a Prigozhin ally, is urging Wagner troops not to comply with Prigozhin and asking that they return to the front lines and concentrate on the fight with Ukraine.
In its typically coy fashion, Ukraine's Defense Ministry weighed in.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org