Vladimir Putin’s security chiefs say they have launched a criminal case against the head of the country’s mercenary forces for allegedly calling for armed mutiny.
In an explosive rant on Telegram, Yevgeny Prigozhin vowed to stop the “evil” of the Kremlin’s top brass, whom he accused of “destroying” his fighters and concocting lies to justify invading Ukraine – saying Vladimir Putin had been “deceived” by the defence ministry.
The Russian president had been briefed and “necessary measures are being taken”, Moscow’s Interfax news agency said in response, citing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
The millionaire head of private military contractor Wagner on Friday accused his country’s defence ministry of trying to deceive society and Mr Putin with fabricated claims of Ukrainian aggression for their own personal gain.
The defence ministry quickly issued a denial of the accusations, calling them “an informational provocation”.
And the Tass news agency reported the Federal Security Service (FSB) had opened criminal action against him, citing the National Antiterrorism Committee. The committee called on Mr Prigozhin to stop illegal actions, Tass said.
Mr Prigozhin has for months been openly feuding with defence minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov, accusing them of rank incompetence.
But on Friday, he for the first time dismissed Russia’s core justification for invading Ukraine on 24 February last year.
In a video on his Telegram channel, he said: “There was nothing out of the ordinary happening on February 24 … the defence 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.
The official version was “a beautiful story”, he claimed. “The war was needed … so that Shoigu could become a marshal … so that he could get a second ‘Hero’ [of Russia] medal.
“The war wasn’t needed to demilitarise or denazify Ukraine.”
An unverified video posted on the “Razgruzka Wagner” (Wagner’s Combat Vest) Telegram channel suggested that on Mr Shoigu’s orders, the Russian military launched a missile attack on Wagner camps, causing “many victims”.
Mr Prigozhin vowed to avenge the alleged attack, saying: “There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why chaos is happening in the country.”
But he added: “This is not a military coup.”
He said details of what had occurred were just emerging, but added: “The minister of defence arrived specially in Rostov to carry out an operation to destroy the Wagner PMC [private military company].”
The Wagner chief claimed the war had also been needed to enrich the ruling elite who, he said, were not satisfied with the commercial potential of part of Ukraine’s Donbas region that Moscow seized control of in 2014 via a proxy separatist force.
“The task was to divide material assets [in Ukraine],” he said. “There was massive theft in the Donbas, but they wanted more.”
He went on: “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.”
Last month Mr Prigozhin stood in front of the bloodied bodies of some of his dead troops in Ukraine and yelled expletive-riddled insults at Russian military leaders, blaming them for the carnage.
“They came here as volunteers and they died to let you lounge in your red wood offices,” he shouted. “Those who don’t give us ammunition will be eaten alive in hell!”