Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Wagner Group mercenaries Saturday that armed mutiny is treason and anyone who takes up arms against Russia would be punished.
Putin promised, in an emergency televised address, to take decisive action to stabilize Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city where Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said his forces had taken control of all military installations.
"It is a blow to Russia, to our people. And our actions to defend the Fatherland against such a threat will be harsh. 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," Putin said, calling the Wagner group’s action a “stab in the back.”
Earlier Saturday, Russia said an anti-terrorist operation regime is up and running in Moscow, after Prigozhin vowed to overthrow Russia’s military leadership.
Russia is appealing to the mercenaries of the Wagner Group to abandon the organization and its leader.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement, posted on Telegram that was directed to the mercenary fighters, that they had been deceived and drawn into a “criminal adventure” orchestrated by Prigozhin.
Prigozhin said early Saturday his forces had seized control of the Russian army’s headquarters in Rostov and that his forces were in control of the city’s military sites.
"We are inside the (army) headquarters, it is 7:30 a.m. (0430 GMT). Military sites in Rostov, including an aerodrome, are under control," Prigozhin said in a video on Telegram.
Prigozhin and his fighters had crossed from Ukraine into Russia and entered Rostov, facing no resistance by border guards. Prigozhin said his men were ready to go "all the way" against the Russian military and would destroy anyone who stood in their way.
"Everyone who will try to put up resistance ... we will consider it a threat and destroy it immediately, including any checkpoints that will be in our way and any aircraft that we see over our heads. I am asking everyone to remain calm and not succumb to provocations, stay in their homes. It is advisable not to go outside along the route of our movement," he continued.
"After we finish what we started, we will return to the front to defend our Motherland," Prigozhin said. "There are 25,000 of us, and we are going to figure out why this country is in such a mess. Twenty-five thousand are expected as a tactical reserve, and the strategic reserve is the whole army and the whole country. Everyone who wants to join. We must end this disgrace," he said.
Officials in Voronezh reported Saturday a military column moving on federal highway M4 Don, but it was not immediately clear which direction the column is moving. In addition, the mayor of Moscow has announced that “anti-terrorist measures are being implemented” in the capital, with checkpoints possibly being set up on the roads.
The White House said it is monitoring the standoff between top Russian military officials and the Wagner force and will be consulting with allies and partners on developments, National Security Council spokesperson Adam Hodge told VOA Friday.
British officials said Saturday they are monitoring the situation in Russia. "Over the coming hours, the loyalty of Russia’s security forces, and especially the Russian National Guard, will be key to how the crisis plays out. This represents the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times," Britain’s Defense Ministry said in a tweet.
Prigozhin said Friday that Wagner field camps were struck by rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery fire on orders from the chief of the military's General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov. He charged that Gerasimov issued the order after a meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, at which they decided to destroy Wagner.
Stay informed. Subscribe to our newsletter
The Russian Defense Ministry rejected Prigozhin's claims.
Prigozhin said the Wagner Group commanders' council has vowed to punish Shoigu.
"The evil that the military leadership of the country is responsible for must be stopped. They neglect the lives of soldiers, they forgot the word 'justice,' which we will bring back," he said.
"Therefore, those who killed our guys today, those who killed tens, many tens of thousands of lives of Russian soldiers, will be punished," he said, announcing that his forces would march to secure justice for the lost fighters.
Russia's Federal Security Service, the FSB, opened a criminal investigation on Friday against Prigozhin, accusing him of armed mutiny, citing the National Anti-Terrorism Committee, an arm of the FSB.
The crime is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, according to Russia's chief prosecutor.
Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya told The Associated Press this may well be the last of Prigozhin.
“Now that the state has actively engaged, there’s no turning back,” she posted on Twitter. “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. ... Confrontation seems totally futile.”
Prigozhin Friday said the Kremlin's reasoning for invading Ukraine is based on lies fabricated by the army's top brass. He has for months openly accused Shoigu and Gerasimov of gross incompetence.
"The Defense Ministry is trying to deceive society and the president and tell us a story about how there was crazy aggression from Ukraine and that they were planning to attack us with the whole of NATO," Prigozhin said in a video clip released on Telegram by his press service.
He went on to accuse Shoigu: "The war was needed ... so that Shoigu could become a marshal ... so that he could get a second 'Hero' [of Russia] medal," he added. "The war wasn't needed to demilitarize or denazify Ukraine."
The Wagner chief also attacked the ruling elite, saying greed fueled its desire to absorb the assets from Ukraine's Donbas region. "The task was to divide material assets," he said. "There was massive theft in the Donbas, but they wanted more."