Wagner marched on Moscow in protest because Kremlin was about to axe private army, Yevgeny Prigozhin says

26 June 2023, 16:37

Yevgeny Prigozhin said that the march was not an attempted coup
Yevgeny Prigozhin said that the march was not an attempted coup. Picture: Alamy/Getty

By Kit Heren

Yevgeny Prigozhin has claimed that the Wagner Group's march on Moscow was a protest at the group's imminent closure, and not an attempt to overthrow the government.

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Speaking publicly for the first time since he retreated to Belarus after calling off the march on Saturday night, Prigozhin claimed that the Wagner Group was to be shut down on July 1.

He said that the aim of the march was not to bring down Vladimir Putin's regime, but to show the group's displeasure at the decision.

He said in a voice note: "As a result of intrigues, ill-conceived decisions, this unit was to cease to exist on July 1, 23.

"A council of commanders gathered that brought all the information to the fighters: no one agreed to sign a contract with the Ministry of Defence...

Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner Group of mercenaries
Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner Group of mercenaries. Picture: Alamy

"The soldiers who decided that they were ready to move to the regulart army, moved on. But this was a very small amount."

Prigozhin said he was against the decision to disband Wagner, and the decision was made at "the most inopportune moment".

He added that they decided to go to Rostov to hand over their equipment.

"Despite the fact that we did not show any aggression, we were attacked by missiles and immediately after that the helicopters worked. About 30 people, fighters of PMC "Wagner" were killed. Some got hurt.

Wagner troops leaving Rostov on Saturday
Wagner troops leaving Rostov on Saturday. Picture: Getty

"This was the trigger for the fact that immediately the council of commanders decided that we should advance immediately.

"We covered 780 kilometres in a day. No infantry troops were hurt. We regret that we were forced to strike at air assets, but these assets dropped bombs and launched missile strikes."

He added that the aim of the march was "to prevent the destruction of Wagner" and "to bring to justice those persons who, through their unprofessional actions, made a huge number of mistakes" in the war in Ukraine.

Putin slammed the Wagner Group
Putin slammed the Wagner Group. Picture: Alamy

Prigozhin said: "We stopped at the moment when the first assault detachment came within 200 kilometres of Moscow, deployed its artillery, reconnoitred the area, and it was obvious that at that moment a lot of blood would be shed. Therefore, we felt that the demonstration of what we were going to do was enough.

"We went to demonstrate our protest, and not to overthrow the government in the country.

Prigozhin said Wagner's march through the country showed the "most serious problems".

"We blocked all military units, airfields that were on our way," he said.

Prigozhin suddenly told his mercenary group to stand down as soldiers neared Moscow
Prigozhin suddenly told his mercenary group to stand down as soldiers neared Moscow. Picture: PA

Although he is not currently facing any criminal charges for the extraordinary threat to Putin's regime, the private army chief's life could still be in danger, according to former CIA director General David Petraeus.

"Prigozhin kept his life, but lost his Wagner Group," Gen Petraeus said.

"And he should be very careful around open windows in his new surroundings in Belarus, where he's going."

Despite the coup's failure, British diplomats are preparing for the fall of Putin.

"This could be Chapter One of something new", a government source told The Times.

They added: "We have to watch, wait and see what comes next."

Read more: Putin faces 'deeply unstable' Russia after Wagner rebellion 'erodes' image of power and Kremlin is forced to deny he ran

Read more: Alicia Kearns and Matt Frei dig deep into the Wagner mutiny in Russia

Prigozhin suddenly reversed Wagner's march on Moscow after a deal with the Kremlin orchestrated by Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko.

It's thought between 5,000 and 8,000 Wagner troops were moving towards the capital when they received the order to stand down.

The private army's vehicles were spotted on motorways close to Moscow shortly before the coup came to a swift end.

Prigozhin had promised "Soon there will be a new president" after Putin appeared on state television to brand the Wagner rebels traitors.

It's been suggested that the loved ones of Wagner soldiers had been threatened by Putin's allies in the run-up to the reversal.

The Kremlin has promised Wagner soldiers who did not take part in the hours-long effort that they can join the Russian defence forces.

Wagner armoured cars were pictured on the motorway outside Moscow
Wagner armoured cars were pictured on the motorway outside Moscow. Picture: Social media

Experts have quashed suggestions that the coup was staged in order to strengthen Putin's authority.

Institute for the Study of War (ISW) analysts said: "The Kremlin now faces a deeply unstable equilibrium. The Lukashenko-negotiated deal is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution, and Prigozhin's rebellion exposed severe weaknesses in the Kremlin and Russian MoD.

"Suggestions that Prigozhin's rebellion, the Kremlin's response, and Lukashenko's mediation were all staged by the Kremlin are absurd.

"The rebellion exposed the weakness of the Russian security forces and demonstrated Putin's inability to use his forces in a timely manner to repel an internal threat and further eroded his monopoly on force."

A Wagner convoy reportedly came under fire between Rostov and Moscow
A Wagner convoy reportedly came under fire between Rostov and Moscow. Picture: Social media

Prigozhin claimed a Wagner camp near Bakhmut in Ukraine had been attacked by the Russian military after months of criticising the leadership.

He then marched his mercenaries over the border, apparently facing no resistance from young conscripts before rolling into Rostov in the south of Russia.

Wagner forces held the city along with Voronezh, just 300 miles from Moscow.

He said it was a "march for justice" and that he had 25,000 men willing to die.

Putin was rumoured to have fled Moscow as the attempted coup rolled on
Putin was rumoured to have fled Moscow as the attempted coup rolled on. Picture: Getty

Putin's spokesman was forced to deny suggestions that the Russian president fled Moscow in the chaos.

Putin's plane was seen making a journey from the capital toward St Petersburg, data from tracker FlightRadar showed.

It then disappeared from the radar around 100 miles from Putin's official residence.

Dmitry Peskov told Russian state news agency TASS: "Putin is working at the Kremlin."

Kremlin troops moved to defend Moscow if Wagner reached it
Kremlin troops moved to defend Moscow if Wagner reached it. Picture: Alamy

Prigozhin had vowed at the start of the coup: "We’re 25,000 strong, and we’re going to get to the bottom of the lawlessness in this country.

"25,000 are waiting as a tactical reserve, while the strategic reserve is the entire army and the entire country.

"Everyone who wants to, join us. We need to put an end to this disgrace."

Expert: 'The power of President Putin is now more limited than before'

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