Russia says it will prosecute mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin for armed mutiny after he accused military leaders of killing 2000 of his fighters, raising the stakes in a growing confrontation with top officials.
As a long-running stand-off between him and the Defence Ministry appeared to come to a head late on Friday, the ministry issued a statement denying Prigozhin’s accusations and denouncing them as “informational provocation”.
Kyiv, meanwhile, said the major thrust in its counteroffensive against Moscow’s invasion had yet to be launched.
“The main blow is still to come,” Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar told Ukrainian television.
A top Ukrainian general reported “tangible successes” in advances in the south – one of two main theatres of operations, along with eastern Ukraine.
Russian forces there have been fighting alongside mercenaries from the Wagner private military company, whose leader Prigozhin vowed to stop what he called the Russian military’s “evil”.
He denied his actions amounted to a coup.
However, Russia’s FSB security service opened a criminal case against him for calling for an armed mutiny, the TASS news agency said, citing the National Anti-terrorism Committee.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was briefed on the developments and “necessary measures are being taken”, Interfax news agency said, citing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Security was stepped up on Friday night at government buildings, transport facilities and other key locations in Moscow, the state news agency TASS reported, citing a source at a security service.
The deputy commander of Russia’s Ukraine campaign, General Sergei Surovikin, told Wagner fighters to obey Putin, accept Moscow’s commanders and return to their bases.
He said political deterioration would play into the hands of Russia’s enemies.
“I urge you to stop,” Surovikin said in a video posted on Telegram.
The stand-off, details of which remained unclear, could be the biggest domestic crisis Putin has faced since he sent thousands of troops into Ukraine in February last year.
Prigozhin, a one-time Putin ally, has carried out an increasingly bitter feud with Moscow in recent months.
Earlier on Friday, he appeared to cross a new line, saying the Kremlin’s rationale for invading Ukraine, which it calls a “special military operation”, was based on lies by the army’s top brass.
Wagner led Russia’s capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut last month, Russia’s biggest victory in 10 months, and Prigozhin has used its battlefield success to criticise the leadership of the defence ministry with seeming impunity – until now.
In a series of late evening audio messages on his official Telegram channel, Prigozhin said:
“The minister of defence has ordered 2000 bodies that are being stored to be hidden so as not to show the losses.”
“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 …” he added.
“There are 25,000 of us and we are going to figure out why chaos is happening in the country.”
Prigozhin said his actions were “not a military coup”.
“Most of the military support us fervently,” he said.
On the ground in Ukraine, at least three people were killed in Russian attacks on Friday, including two who died after a trolley bus company came under fire in the city of Kherson, regional officials said.
Addressing the pace of the Ukrainian advances, several senior officials on Friday sent the clearest signal so far the main part of the counteroffensive has not yet begun.
“I want to say that our main force has not been engaged in fighting yet, and we are now searching, probing for weak places in the enemy defences,” British newspaper The Guardian quoted Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, as saying.
“Everything is still ahead.”