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Chechen leader offers to help put down Wagner mutiny

(Last Updated On: June 24, 2023)

Mutinous Russian mercenary fighters barrelled towards Moscow on Saturday after seizing a southern city overnight, with Russia’s military firing on them from the air but seemingly incapable of slowing their lightning advance.

Facing the first serious challenge to his grip on power of his 23-year rule, President Vladimir Putin vowed to crush an armed mutiny he compared to Russia’s Civil War a century ago.

The fighters of the Wagner private army run by former Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin were already most of the way to the capital, having captured the city of Rostov and set off on an 1,100 km race to Moscow.

Reuters saw troop carriers and a flatbed truck carrying a tank careening past the city of Voronezh more than halfway to Moscow, where a helicopter fired on them. But there were no reports of the rebels meeting any substantial resistance on the highway.

Russian media showed pictures of small groups of police manning machine gun positions on Moscow’s southern outskirts. Authorities in the Lipetsk region south of the capital told residents to stay home.

The mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, also called on people to refrain as far as possible from trips around the city, given a counter-terrorism operation had been declared, and said the situation was “difficult.”

Sobyanin also said in a statement that Monday would be a non-working day – with some exceptions – in order “to minimize risks”. There was an increased security presence on the streets and Red Square was blocked off by metal barriers.

More than 100 firefighters were in action at a fuel depot ablaze in Voronezh. Video footage obtained by Reuters showed it blowing up in a fireball shortly after a helicopter flew by. Prigozhin accused Russia’s military of hitting civilian targets from the air as it tried to slow the column’s advance.

Prigozhin said his men were on a “march for justice” to remove corrupt and incompetent commanders he blames for botching the war in Ukraine.

In a televised address from the Kremlin, Putin said Russia’s very existence was under threat.

“We are fighting for the lives and security of our people, for our sovereignty and independence, for the right to remain Russia, a state with a thousand-year history,” he said.

“All those who deliberately stepped on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed insurrection, who took the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, will answer both to the law and to our people.”

Putin later signed a law tightening rules for breaking martial law in places where it has been imposed, the RIA news agency said.

A defiant Prigozhin said he and his men had no intention of turning themselves in.

“The president makes a deep mistake when he talks about treason. We are patriots of our motherland, we fought and are fighting for it,” Prigozhin said in an audio message. “We don’t want the country to continue to live in corruption, deceit and bureaucracy.”

Prigozhin, whose private army fought the bloodiest battles in Ukraine even as he feuded for months with the top brass, said he had captured the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District in Rostov without firing a shot.

In Rostov, which serves as the main rear logistical hub for Russia’s entire invasion force, residents milled about calmly, filming on mobile phones as Wagner fighters in armored vehicles and battle tanks took up positions.

One tank was wedged between stucco buildings with posters advertising the circus. Another had “Siberia” daubed in red paint across the front, a clear statement of intent to sweep across the breadth of Russia.