It took less than 10 hours for the fighters of the Wagner PMC, most of whom are criminals pardoned by Vladimir Putin for their participation in the war against Ukraine, to seize power in one of the largest cities in southern Russia – Rostov-on-Don.
On Friday night, Wagner PMC head Yevgeny Prigozhin accused the Russian military of shelling the Wagnerites resting in the rear and promised to hold Defense Ministry officials accountable, starting with Minister Shoigu. Later, in an audio message in his Telegram channel, Prigozhin clarified that his fighters were heading to Rostov, where the headquarters of the Southern Military District and the “special military operation” against Ukraine are located: “We are now entering Rostov. The units of the Ministry of Defense that were thrown to block our way have stepped aside”.
The Defense Ministry said that Prigozhin’s allegations about the shelling of Wagner fighters had no basis in fact. In connection with these statements, the Federal Security Service of Russia opened a criminal case against Prigozhin for calling for armed insurrection.
By the morning, Rostov residents began posting numerous photos and videos on social media showing armed men seizing administrative buildings in Rostov. A major Rostov telegraph channel 161.ru estimated that the headquarters of the Southern Military District, the local FSB and Interior Ministry buildings, as well as the Rostov city administration were seized. The TASS news agency in its photos from Rostov described the armed men surrounding the headquarters of the Southern Military District as members of the Wagner PMC.
On Saturday morning, a video of Prigozhin’s conversation with Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Deputy Head of the GRU Vladimir Alekseev in the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov appeared in one of the Wagner telegram channels.
In the video, Prigozhin explains that Wagner PMC blocked Rostov to “get” the Chief of General Staff Gerasimov and Defense Minister Shoigu: “We want to get the Chief of General Staff and Shoigu. While they are gone, we are here, blockading the city of Rostov and going to Moscow”. “Take it”, cheerfully replies Alekseev, who the day before had recorded an address to the Wagnerites in which he accused them of a coup d’etat and urged them to “come to their senses”.
In the video, Prigozhin also says that Wagner has already shot down three Ministry of Defense helicopters and blames the Russian military for the strike on the bus with civilians. In another video, Prigozhin claims that the Wagner PMC has blockaded all military facilities in Rostov-on-Don, including the airfield.
The governor of the Rostov region, Vasily Golubev, in his Telegram channel urged residents to refrain from travelling to the center of Rostov and not to leave their homes if possible.
The number of Wagner fighters, according to Prigozhin, is 25,000 people. And some of them probably went further north – towards Moscow.
At night, Voronezh authorities reported a column of military equipment on the M-4 Don highway leading to Moscow and urged the population not to use it “temporarily”. “The situation is under control. The region’s power structures are taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the region’s residents”, reported the Voronezh regional government’s Telegram channel.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs for the Voronezh region has introduced a plan “Fortress”, reported “Kommersant”, citing sources in the law enforcement agencies. It implies an emergency gathering of police personnel and taking control of particularly important facilities of the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service and the Federal Penitentiary Service. According to local media reports, a similar plan was previously implemented in the Rostov region, which did not prevent the Wagner family from taking control of the city.
Igor Artamonov, governor of neighboring Lipetsk Oblast, advised residents not to travel to the “southern direction”, particularly to Voronezh Oblast.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said Saturday morning about the “anti-terrorist measures” in the city: “Additional control on the roads has been introduced. There may be restrictions on the holding of public events. I ask to take with understanding to the measures taken”. Even at night military equipment was brought into Moscow and the Federal Security Service and the army were put on alert.
Putin has not yet commented on this emergency situation, but instead congratulated Russians on Youth Day:
“This is a holiday filled with hope. The whole world is changing rapidly. Such challenges challenge us to mobilize all resources and forces. But these changes present unique opportunities for both you and the entire country. This is Russia’s time, your time”.
The Kremlin press service and the main TV channels released a video of the congratulations after the security services accused Prigozhin of sedition. According to presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov, Putin is aware of the situation with Prigozhin.