Russian generals on Friday accused Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the outspoken mercenary tycoon, of attempting to stage a coup against President Vladimir V. Putin, as Russian authorities opened a investigation of Mr. Prigozhin for “organizing an armed rebellion.”
The long-standing feud between Mr. Prigozhin and the Russian military over the war in Ukraine has now escalated into an open confrontation, posing the biggest challenge to Mr. Putin since he launched his invasion of Ukraine 16 months ago.
Videos widely circulating on social media showed armored vehicles of the military and national guard deployed in Moscow and the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, near the front line in Ukraine where Mr. Prigozhin.
Prigozhin on Friday accused the Russian military of attacking his mercenary forces in Wagner and, in a series of recordings posted on social media, promised that his fighters would retaliate. The Russian authorities, in turn, accused Mr. Prigozhin – whose broadsides against the Russian Defense Ministry have been allowed by Mr. Putin for months – to attempt a coup.
“This is a stab in the back of the country and the president,” General Vladimir Alekseyev, the deputy head of Russia’s military intelligence agency, said in a video appeal to Mr. Prigozhin, urging them to stop any rebellion. “This is a coup.”
The mercenary force of Mr. Prigozhin Wagner has proven crucial to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, but in recent months, he has repeatedly chastised Russia’s top brass for alleged corruption and indifference to the lives of regulars. soldier On Friday night, he took his accusations to a new level, claiming that the Russian military attacked Wagner’s camps, killing “several fighters.”
“It is necessary to stop the evil carried by the military leadership of the country,” said Mr. Prigozhin (pronounced pree-GOH-zhin) in one of a series of voice recordings posted on the Telegram social network just after 9 pm Moscow time.
A few minutes later, he suggested that his Wagner mercenary force was ready to attack Russia’s own Defense Ministry, saying, “There are 25,000 of us, and we will find out why the chaos is happening in the country. “
He denied that the actions were a “military coup.”
“This is a march for justice,” he said in another Telegram audio message. “Our actions did not disrupt the troops in any way.”
Just after midnight Moscow time, Russia’s prosecutor general announced that Mr. Prigozhin was being investigated “on suspicion of organizing an armed rebellion” and would face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
The leader of Wagner then defiantly brought the Telegram again, saying that his fighters were approaching the city of Rostov-on-Don and added: “We will continue. We will go to the end. “
The location of Mr. Prigozhin remained vague, and there was no immediate confirmation that his forces were indeed approaching the city.
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was yet to comment on Friday night, one of his advisers, Mykhailo Podolyak, warned on Twitter that “times of trouble are coming” for Russia.
White House officials said they were following events, but would not comment further. “We are monitoring the situation and will consult with allies and partners on these developments,” said Adam Hodge, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Mr. Prigozhin, a restaurateur in St. Petersburg who used his personal connections with Mr. Putin to lucrative government contracts, gained international prominence after his online “troll factory” interfered in the 2016 American presidential election – and after his Wagner fighters were deployed in Syria and across Africa as a shadow forces believed to be fighting for Kremlin interests.
For months the Russian war effort had been hampered by the bitter feud between Mr. Prigozhin and top military leaders, whom he accused in terrifying terms of the inability to conduct the war. He stated that Russian top brass refused to give Wagner’s forces the necessary ammunition even though they were fighting alongside the Russian military for control of the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut.
But Mr. Prigozhin has never before accused Russia’s military leaders of attacking his forces, nor expressed in such stark terms that the Kremlin’s stated justification for the war was nonsense.
In a 30-minute video released on Friday, Mr. Prigozhin described his country’s invasion of Ukraine as a “racket” carried out by a corrupt elite chasing money and glory without concern for life. in Russia.
He also accused Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, of orchestrating a deadly attack with missiles and helicopters on camps behind Russian lines in Ukraine, where the his soldiers of fortune were bivouacked. And he accused Mr. Shoigu himself directed the strikes from the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, near Ukraine.
The mercenary leader’s claims cannot be immediately verified. Russia’s defense ministry denied the allegations, saying in a statement that the messages posted by Mr.
Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Mr. Putin was “aware of all the events surrounding Prigozhin,” according to Interfax, a Russian news agency.
The accusations of Mr. Prigozhin created a ripple effect among Russian pro-war activists, who feared that an open conflict between the army and Wagner’s forces could threaten Russia’s front lines during the Ukrainian counteroffensive. In Ukraine, some saw his remarks as further evidence of internal divisions within the Russian war effort.
In an earlier videotaped speech, Mr. Prigozhin did not openly impugn Mr. Putin, instead put him as a leader who was misled by his officials. But rejecting the Kremlin’s narrative that the invasion was a necessity for the Russian nation, Mr. Prigozhin went further than anyone else to build Russian security by publicly challenging the wisdom of war.
“The war is not necessary to return the citizens of Russia to our bosom, nor to demilitarize or denazify Ukraine,” said Mr. “War is necessary for a herd of animals to bask in glory.”
Friday’s diatribes deepened the enigma of Mr. Mr. Prigozhin’s system. Putin. His Wagner troops, composed of veteran fighters as well as thousands of prisoners personally recruited by Mr. Prigozhin from Russian prisons, proved key to capturing the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in May after a month-long war.
However, during the battle for Bakhmut, Mr. Prigozhin also emerged as a populist political figure, challenging Russia’s military leadership for corruption. His outrageous recordings and videos posted on the Telegram messaging network cast top military and Kremlin officials as ignorant and indifferent to the struggles of regular Russian soldiers. .
So far, Mr. Putin has not detained Mr. Prigozhin, even as Mr. Putin’s security forces have jailed or fined thousands of Russians for criticizing the military or opposing the war. Some people who know Mr. Putin say they believe he still sees Mr. Putin. Prigozhin as a loyal servant who applied the necessary pressure to a vast military apparatus. Some believe the Kremlin orchestrated Mr. Trump’s tirades. Prigozhin against Mr. Shoigu, the defense minister, to deflect blame from Mr. Putin himself.
But Friday’s statements complicated the picture, with Mr. Prigozhin following not only Mr. Shoigu but also the unnamed “oligarchs” around Mr. Putin, while framing the entire official rhetoric around the invasion as a hoax. He said there was “nothing out of the ordinary” in Ukraine’s military posture on the eve of the February 2022 invasion – challenging the Kremlin’s justification that Ukraine was about to attack Russian-backed separatist territory in eastern Ukraine.
“Our holy war with people who offend the Russians, with those who try to embarrass them, has turned into a racket,” he said.
Mr. also stated. Prigozhin in his video that the counter-offensive in Ukraine to regain territory is more bad for Russia than the government allows. On Telegram, pro-war commentators quickly pushed back against that claim, including Igor Girkin, a former paramilitary commander who himself has often criticized Russia’s top brass.
“Prigozhin should have been handed over to a military tribunal for a number of things,” Mr. Girkin wrote. “Now also for treason.”
Julian E. Barnes and Cassandra Vinograd contributed to the report.