Wagner Group Rebellion the ‘Most Significant Challenge’ to Russian State: UK Defence Ministry

Wagner Group Rebellion the ‘Most Significant Challenge’ to Russian State: UK Defence Ministry
In this grab taken from video and released by Prigozhin Press Service, on June 23, 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the outspoken millionaire head of the private military contractor Wagner, speaks during his interview at an unspecified location. (Prigozhin Press Service via AP)
Lily Zhou

A Wagner group-led armed rebellion launched on Saturday marks “the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times,” the British defence ministry said.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said there had been “very limited evidence” that the rebelling paramilitary group was met with resistance, and that the loyalty of Russia’s security forces will be “key” to how things play out.

Writing on Twitter on Saturday, the MoD said Wagner had “almost certainly occupied key security sites” in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, including the headquarters “which runs Russia’s military operations in Ukraine.”

“Further Wagner units are moving north through Vorenezh [sic] Oblast, almost certainly aiming to get to Moscow,” defence officials said.

The statement said there had been “very limited evidence of fighting between Wagner and Russian security forces,” suggesting “some have likely remained passive, acquiescing to Wagner.”

“Over the coming hours, the loyalty of Russia’s security forces, and especially the Russian National Guard, will be key to how the crisis plays out. This represents the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times,” the MoD said.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the BBC that he would speak to some of the UK’s allies on Saturday about the “evolving” situation, on which they are “keeping a close eye.”

“But the most important thing I’d say is for all parties to be responsible and to protect civilians, and that’s about as much as I can say at this moment,” he said.

Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Committee, wrote on Twitter that the rebellion represented a “huge opportunity for Ukraine to exploit.”

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner leader who has been in a months-long feud with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, appeared to have posted a series of angry video and audio messages on Friday and Saturday, accusing the military leaders of trying to destroy his group.

In one of the messages posted on Telegram, Prigozhin said Wagner’s field camps in Ukraine were struck on Friday by rockets, helicopter gunships, and artillery fire, which killed some 2,000 Wagner soldiers.

He alleged the attack was ordered by Gerasimov after a meeting with Shoigu, at which they decided to destroy Wagner. The Epoch Times cannot independently verify the claims.

Prigozhin declared a “march of justice” to punish the military leaders and said that his force had taken over all the military installations across Rostov-on-Don, a city near the Ukrainian border where the war was overseen by the Russian Southern Military District headquarters.

He also said troops would move to Moscow unless Shoigu and Gerasimov met with him in Rostov-on-Don.

Russia’s defense ministry has denied attacking Wagner units, saying Prigozhin’s accusations were “not true and are an informational provocation.”

According to Russian state-owned TASS news agency, the Federal Security Service has “opened a criminal case into a call for an armed mutiny.”

Prigozhin also alleged that the war with Ukraine was launched so Shoigu “could become a marshal” and get a “second ‘Hero’ [of Russia] medal,” not because it was “needed to demilitarise or denazify Ukraine.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has characterised the rebellion as “treason and a betrayal of the country and its people” led by “unbounded ambitions and personal interests.”

In a televised address to the nation, Putin said “the armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders“ and that “all those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment.”

Prigozhin denied Putin’s allegations in an audio message on his Telegram channel.

“Regarding the betrayal of the motherland, the president was deeply mistaken. We are patriots of our homeland,” he said.

He said his fighters would not turn themselves in at the request of Putin, as “we do not want the country to live on in corruption, deceit, and bureaucracy.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.