Putin is denouncing the private military Wagner group after it said it was rebelling
MILES PARKS, HOST:
Extraordinary scenes from Russia today. President Vladimir Putin addressed the nation and denounced the actions of one of his key allies as treason. At issue is a feud between the head of the private military Wagner Group, essentially a mercenary group, and the Russian Defense Ministry. After accusing the defense minister of attacking his troops, the Wagner Group said it was rebelling and intended to replace Russia's top military leadership. NPR's Charles Maynes is in Moscow, and he joins us now.
CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.
PARKS: So just bring us up to speed. What is behind this feud between the head of the Wagner Group and the defense ministry?
MAYNES: Yeah. You know, for months, Yevgeny Prigozhin has publicly criticized Russia's Defense Ministry over perceived failures amid the war in Ukraine, all while promoting the successes of his own mercenary group, the Wagner Group, on the battlefield. Now to observers, the back-and-forth sniping seemed part of a larger fight for favor in the Kremlin and the financial and political capital that would come with it. Yet Prigozhin appeared to cross a red line in a video posted to his Telegram account Friday. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN: (Non-English language spoken).
MAYNES: So here, Prigozhin accuses the Defense Ministry's top brass of hyping the threat from Ukraine last year and duping President Vladimir Putin and the country into a flawed invasion. In other words, he's calling into question the rationale for the war itself. Prigozhin also insisted that deception continues, and he insulted the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, in personal and vulgar terms. And in a video posted a few hours later, Prigozhin went on to accuse Shoigu and his generals of ordering a strike that killed a large number of Wagner fighters, although that claim hasn't been independently verified. Prigozhin nonetheless is calling on his forces to remove the defense minister in response.
PARKS: So as you note, this seems to be part of a battle for Putin's favor. What has the Russian president said about all this?
MAYNES: Yeah, you know, for months the debate here has been, you know, is Putin intentionally letting this rivalry fester or is he simply unable to stop it? Many lean towards the former, if only because it seemed to be producing better results on the battlefield. You'll remember that Wagner, with some help from Russian troops, took the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut after months of fighting. That was earlier this summer. Yet in a televised address to the nation this morning, Putin made it clear that this time Prigozhin had finally gone too far.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).
MAYNES: So here, Putin says those who had organized the military uprising and taken up arms against Russian soldiers had betrayed the country and would pay the price. Meanwhile, authorities have launched an anti-terrorist operation to restore order. And Russia's FSB, the federal security services, have formally charged Prigozhin with inciting an armed revolt. And that carries a possible 12 to 20 years in prison if convicted.
PARKS: So where does this all go from here? I mean, this is all happening against the backdrop of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
MAYNES: Yeah, this is really the other point in Putin's speech. He drew parallels with other times in Russian history when internal fighting had thrown the country into deep political turmoil. And Putin said that at a moment when Russia is fighting in Ukraine against what he calls the collective West - in other words, against NATO - that this was not the time. And yet here we are in what looks like a full-blown crisis.
Despite Putin's attempts to stamp out this rebellion, Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries control several military installations in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. That's a key military hub for the war effort in Ukraine. Russia's Defense Ministry says Wagner forces are marching on Moscow, and Prigozhin says neither he nor his fighters are about to surrender, on the orders of the president, the FSB or anybody else.
PARKS: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you so much.
MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.