The head of Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary group, has accused Russia of killing over 2,000 fighters and vowed to stop the “evil” of the military leadership.
In a series of audio messages on his official Telegram channel, Yevgeny Prigozhin promised revenge for those who had died.
Prigozhin accused Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of ordering a rocket strike on Wagner’s camps in Ukraine, where soldiers are fighting on behalf of Russia against Ukrainian forces.
“Those who destroyed our lads, who destroyed the lives of many tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, will be punished. I ask that no one offer resistance,” Prigozhin said.
Prigozhin did not provide evidence that Russia’s military was responsible for the deaths of 2,000 fighters.
He went on to warn he plans to punish Russia’s defense minister and urged the army not to offer resistance.
“This is not an armed rebellion, but a march of justice,” Prigozhin said. “This is not a military coup.”
Russian state TV broke into programming and reported that security in Russia’s capital had been increased in response to Prigozhin’s statement.
“Security measures have been strengthened in Moscow, all the most important facilities, state authorities, and transport infrastructure facilities have been taken under enhanced protection,” a law enforcement officials said in a brief statement, according to the news agency.
Russia’s National Counterterrorist Committee issued a demand for Prigozhin to “stop these unlawful actions at once”.
“All the messages and videos spread in social networks on behalf of E. Prigozhin about the alleged ‘strike’ of the Russian Ministry of Defence against the ‘rear camps of the Wagner PMC’ are untrue and are an informational provocation,” the Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had “been informed of all the events around Prigozhin. Necessary measures are being taken,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.
“The war was needed so that [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu could become a marshal so that he could get a second ‘Hero’ [of Russia] medal,” Prigozhin said.
President Joe Biden has been informed of the situation and is being briefed on the matter.
“We are monitoring the situation and will be consulting with allies and partners on these developments,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adam Hodge said.
In a joint statement, committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said they are keeping track of the unfolding events in Russia.
“We are closely monitoring what appears to be a significant internal conflict among Russian forces,” they said. “We are in touch with the Intelligence Community and Administration as this situation unfolds.”
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told NBC News the Wagner Group activities could lead to a “worst-case scenario” for the Russian government.
“The Russians have turned against each other,” Castro said in a text message. “It’s the worst-case scenario for Russia because they’re on the brink of an attempted coup and Putin is likely losing an informal army that’s he’s heavily relied upon in his invasion of Ukraine.”
The United States has estimated that over 100,000 Russian troops have died in the war with Ukraine but Russia has denied that number.
This story has been updated with additional information.