The head of the Russian Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said overnight that he had taken control of the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don as part of an attempt to oust the Russian defense minister. The 62-year-old’s open challenge to Moscow’s military comes after months of rising tensions over the conduct of the war in Ukraine.
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin announced early Saturday that his forces had taken control of the Russian army headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don, a city of more than a million people where Russia is based. one of its outposts oversees military operations in Ukraine. .
Prigozhin requested that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov come to meet him in Rostov, a city near the Ukrainian border.
Prigozhin’s apparent rebellion came after he accused the Russian military of launching strikes on Wagner bases in Ukraine on Friday.
“The evil that the military leadership has brought to the country must be stopped,” Prigozhin said.
In a nationally televised address on Saturday morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the armed rebellion by Wagner’s mercenaries “treason” and a “stab in the back” while vowing to punish those responsible.
Russian security services said they were launching a “counter-terrorism operation” in Moscow and the surrounding region as authorities launched a criminal investigation into Prigozhin and called for his arrest.
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Prigozhin’s move comes amid reports of increasing conflict between the Wagner Group and Moscow’s military over the past few months.
Prigozhin is locked in a bitter power struggle with the defense ministry as his forces lead battles that have killed many of his men for limited gains in eastern Ukraine.
He previously accused the Russian military of trying to “steal” the gains from Wagner and criticized Moscow’s “extreme bureaucracy” for slowing down development on the ground.
And he blamed Defense Minister Shoigu and other senior officials for the deaths of many of his fighters, claiming Moscow did not provide enough ammunition.
Unlike Russian generals, who have been criticized for avoiding battles, the thin and bald Prigozhin often poses for pictures with mercenaries who are said to be on the front lines.
Earlier this year he posted on social media a picture from the cockpit of an SU-24 fighter jet and challenged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to an aerial duel.
The former hot dog vendor and native of Putin’s hometown of Saint Petersburg, who was imprisoned for nearly a decade during the Soviet era, has for years dismissed allegations that he was linked to Wagner.
But last September, he admitted that he was the one who established the fighting force and opened the headquarters in Saint Petersburg.
Last year, a video surfaced of a bald man with a strong resemblance to Prigozhin in a prison yard, offering contracts to prisoners to fight in Ukraine with a chilling set of conditions. .
But Prigozhin’s rapid rise to power despite his humble upbringing would not have been possible without Putin’s support as relations between the two men can be traced back decades.
In the final years of the Soviet Union, Prigozhin served nine years in prison after being convicted of fraud and theft.
He later owned a hot dog stand and then fancy restaurants, which attracted interest from Putin. In his first term, the Russian leader took former French president Jacques Chirac to dinner with one of them.
Putin helped Prigozhin open a factory in 2010 that was built with large loans from a state bank. Prigozhin also organized catering for Kremlin events over the years – he received the nickname “Putin’s chef” – and provides catering services to the Russian military.
Opposition figure and anti-corruption fighter Alexei Navalny accused Prigozhin’s companies in 2017 of violating antitrust laws by bidding for about $387 million in Defense Ministry contracts.
Prigozhin is described as a billionaire with a large fortune built on state contracts, although the extent of his wealth is unknown. Part of his reported fortune comes from Wagner’s operations in Africa and Syria.
A 2018 investigation by the French newspaper “Libération” reported that Prigozhin received 25 percent of the revenue from gas and oil fields that Russian paramilitary forces helped recapture from Islamic State group militants.
Wagner Group mercenaries are reportedly protecting a gold mine in Sudan suspected of being run by a company not directly controlled by Prigozhin.
Washington imposed sanctions on Prigozhin and employees of the Internet Research Agency, accusing Prigozhin of meddling in US elections through his internet “troll factory”.
Prigozhin denied any involvement and demanded $50 billion in compensation from the United States by 2020. He finally admitted to founding the Internet Research Agency in February of this year.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and Reuters)