Russia’s Federal Security Services (FSB) opened a criminal investigation Friday against mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, accusing him of armed mutiny, citing the National Anti-Terrorism Committee.
The crime is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, according to Russia’s chief prosecutor.
The NAC, which is part of the FSB, insisted there is no basis to the allegations made by Prigozhin earlier Friday that the Russian Ministry of Defense conducted an airstrike against Wagner bases, killing 2,000 of his fighters.
Prigozhin accused the Russian military, acting on the orders of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, of shelling his troops’ positions in Ukraine.
“The Minister of Defense arrived specially in Rostov to carry out an operation to destroy the Wagner PMC (private military company),” he wrote on his Telegram social media channel.
An unverified video posted on the “Razgruzka Wagner” (Wagner’s Combat Vest) Telegram channel showed a scene in a forest where small fires were burning and trees appeared to have been damaged by explosions.
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 begin a march to secure justice for the lost fighters.
Early Saturday, according to audio posted on Telegram, Prigozhin said he and his men had crossed into Russia.
“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.
The Russian Defense Ministry rejected Prigozhin’s claim, and the NAC said it has opened a criminal inquiry into Prigozhin on charges of calling for a military coup. According to Russian state news agency TASS, the FSB is calling on Wagner fighters “not to follow Prigozhin’s criminal orders” and to detain him.
Military vehicles have been seen on Moscow streets, Reuters reported.
In Washington, the White House said it is monitoring the situation and consulting with allies, National Security Council spokesperson Adam Hodge said Friday.
The Interfax news agency quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying that President Vladimir Putin has been briefed on the developments and “necessary measures are being taken.”
Earlier Friday, Prigozhin said the Kremlin’s reasoning for invading Ukraine is based on lies fabricated by the army’s top brass. Prigozhin has for months openly accused Shoigu and Russia’s top general, Valery 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 the Telegram messaging app 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.”