Putin vows revenge for ‘betrayal’ by his former ally Prigozhin

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation, in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023. Putin addressed the nation Saturday and vowed to defend the country and its people from an armed rebellion declared by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
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As columns of mercenaries appeared to be moving with lightning speed towards Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to strike back hard against Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, who launched an extraordinary assault on his own government.

In remarks on Saturday morning from the Kremlin, Putin denounced Prigozhin’s “criminal adventure” as an “armed mutiny” that would be met with a response from regular Russian troops.

“Any actions that split our nation are essentially a betrayal of our people, of our comrades-in-arms who are now fighting at the frontline. This is a knife in the back of our country and our people,” Putin said, invoking the bloody legacy of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

“Our actions to defend the Fatherland from this threat will be harsh,” he said. Video footage on social media showed defensive positions being hastily erected on the approaches to Moscow.

Later in the day Saturday, however, Prigozhin announced that the column of troops would be halting its advance on Moscow. He said his goal was to avoid "shedding Russian blood"; he did not say if the Kremlin agreed to his demand for replacing Russia's military leadership.

Who is Prigozhin?

A handout photo taken from video shows Prigozhin on a rooftop somewhere in Ukraine.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, in March. (Prigozhin Press Service via AP)

Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, only to see what he and his generals thought would be a quick war descend into a quagmire.

Despite lacking military experience of his own, Prigozhin was one of the few Kremlin functionaries willing to seize the initiative. The catering magnate turned mercenary leader recruited his Wagner forces directly from Russian prisons, promising freedom in exchange for service. Lacking training, Wagner troops died by the thousands — but also made critical gains around the southern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin has long feuded with the Ministry of Defense, which he has accused of poor military and logistical leadership. That rivalry exploded on Friday, when he charged regular Russian forces of shelling Wagner positions in occupied Ukrainian territory.

He had made similar accusations earlier this month. The comments represented the eruption of a rare public feud between the Kremlin and Prigozhin, who used to be known as “Putin’s chef” because of his close relationship with the Russian leader.

A native of St. Petersburg, like Putin, Prigozhin served time in prison for assault in the 1980s. He later opened a hot dog stand and eventually a catering business before becoming, improbably, one of Putin’s closest advisers.

Founded in 2014, the Wagner Group had previously supported despotic regimes in Syria and several African nations, operating in a kind of extralegal territory.

Even if he seemed to frequently overstate Wagner gains, and to show little regard for the thousands of men he sent to their deaths, Prigozhin emerged throughout the first months of 2023 as a charismatic and energetic commander in a landscape filled to a large extent with bland incompetents afraid to speak honestly to the Kremlin.

Until now, he appears to have had Putin’s sanction.

Wagner’s stunning advance

Civilians gather in a street around a tank marked
People gather in the street as fighters of the Wagner Group of private mercenaries are deployed in the city of Rostov-on-Don. (Reuters/Stringer)

Moscow seemed taken aback by his offensive. In the chaotic hours that followed, Wagner troops captured Russian military sites in Rostov-on-Don, a large city south of Moscow. Footage shared on social media on Saturday morning showed Wagner armored vehicles moving quickly north on the M-4 highway toward the capital — and encountering little resistance from regular Russian forces, which have been sapped by the grinding war in Ukraine.

Putin praised the thousands of Wagner mercenaries who died on the battlefields of Ukraine as “heroes” who had sacrificed their lives for “the unity of the Russian world.” But he described the forces following Prigozhin’s lead towards Moscow as traitors “who are attempting to stage a revolt and are pushing the country towards anarchy and fratricide — and ultimately, towards defeat and surrender.”

Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord and Putin ally, is reportedly on the way to Rostov with fighters of his own, but Kadyrov is known for exaggerating his forces and battlefield advances.

A looming confrontation near Moscow

A line of military trucks seen from the opposite side of a highway.
Military vehicles along the M4 highway to Moscow amid escalating tensions between the Kremlin and the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group. (Boris Alekseev/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Already dealing with a slow but determined Ukrainian counteroffensive, Putin now has to contend with what could have erupted into a full-blown insurrection, especially if Prigozhin has tacit support within the Kremlin or the armed forces.

“This represents the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times,” the United Kingdom’s defense ministry said in a social media message.

“I will take every effort to defend the country and protect the constitutional order as well as the lives, security and freedom of our citizens,” Putin said in his remarks.