A screen grab captured from a video shows Russian President Vladimir Putin making a statement amid escalating tensions between the Kremlin and the head of paramilitary group Wagner in Moscow on June 24, 2023.
Kremlin Press Office| Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to punish everyone involved in the “armed rebellion” and accused them of treason.
In a televised address Saturday morning, Putin appealed to those who “by deceit or threats, were dragged into a criminal adventure, pushed onto the path of a serious crime — an armed rebellion.”
His comments come after Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the mercenary Wagner Group, accused the Kremlin of deliberately bombing Wagner troops. Russia’s Ministry of Defense has denied the accusations, calling Prigozhin’s remarks “informational provocation.” The mercenary chief had also claimed that Russia’s justification for invading Ukraine was based on lies.
Putin characterized the unprovoked war in Ukraine as a struggle for Russia’s future, an effort that he said requires unity among its forces. The Russian leader said, “I repeat, any internal turmoil is a deadly threat to our statehood, to us as a nation.”
“We will protect both our people and our statehood from any threats. Including — from internal betrayal,” Putin said. “And what we are faced with is precisely a betrayal. Exorbitant ambitions and personal interests led to treason.”
Prigozhin later responded, saying Putin was “deeply wrong” and that Wagner forces were “patriots,” according to an NBC News translation of his remarks.
“Regarding betraying of Motherland – the president is deeply wrong. We are patriots of our Motherland,” he said. “We are and have been at war and no one is going to by order of FSB, president or other to subdue – because we do not want our country to further live in corruption, deception and bureaucracy.”
He also accused Russian bureaucrats of corruption and hoarding arms and money for themselves, “for the occasion that is happening today when someone is marching to Moscow.”
Putin also described the situation in Rostov-on-Don, a city in southwestern Russia near Ukraine, as difficult but said he would seek to stabilize the situation there.
Prigozhin has claimed that he and his mercenary forces have taken control of the city, a key logistical hub for Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine. The Washington City Times has not verified the claims. The Wagner chief has demanded that top Russian general Valery Gerasimov and Defense Minister meet him in Rostov.
The U.K. defense ministry characterized this feud between Wagner and Moscow as “the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times,” adding that it has “escalated into outright military confrontation.” The ministry said the loyalty of Russia’s forces is crucial to the outcome of this situation. It had noted there was little evidence of Russian forces fighting with the mercenary troops, even remaining “passive” or “acquiescing” in some cases.
Putin’s pledge to make those who organized the rebellion answer for their actions marks a stark split for Prigozhin, who had once been one of the president’s long-standing supporters. Even as tensions mounted between the paramilitary leader and senior defense officials, Prigozhin had been careful to not direct his criticism toward the Kremlin and Putin.
Russia has relied heavily on the mercenary group in its war, but a rift has grown between Moscow and Wagner fighters. Prigozhin previously complained that his forces had only received a fraction of ammunition deliveries that had been requested. He has also criticized defense officials’ strategy in Ukraine.
The mercenary rebellion comes as Ukraine chips away at Russian-occupied territory in its counteroffensive efforts. Fighting has intensified, but Kyiv’s efforts have only produced limited gains so far.
— The Washington City Times’s Holly Ellyatt and NBC News contributed reporting.