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Russian authorities launch criminal probe into Wagner Group head

Yevgeny Prigozhin: Huge numbers of our fighters, or our combat comrades, have been killed

Authorities in Russia have launched a criminal probe against the owner of the Wagner Group military contractor over his alleged threats to remove Russia’s defence minister.

The announcement on Friday follows a statement from Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, accusing Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, of ordering a rocket attack on Wagner’s field camps in Ukraine, where its soldiers are fighting on behalf of Russia.

In audio posted to the social media platform Telegram, Prigozhin railed against the rocket blasts and the toll it has taken on Wagner forces.

“Huge numbers of our fighters, of our combat comrades, have been killed,” he said. “The evil that the military leadership of the country bears must be stopped. They neglect the lives of soldiers. They forget the word justice.”

Prigozhin estimated that 2,000 of his fighters had been killed in the blasts, though he failed to provide evidence for that death toll. His message included a call-to-action that Russia has since interpreted as appeal for mutiny.

“There are 25,000 of us, and we’re going to figure out why this chaos is happening in the country,” Prigozhin said, indicating that he had more forces in reserve and support from military members. “Everyone is welcome to join. We must end this disgrace.”

Prigozhin’s words were a significant escalation in his long-running standoff with the Russian defence ministry. In response, the ministry issued a statement saying Prigozhin’s accusations were “not true and are an informational provocation”.

Prigozhin said his actions did not amount to a military coup. But Russia’s FSB security service opened a criminal case against him for calling for an armed mutiny, the TASS news agency said on Friday, citing the National Anti-terrorism Committee.

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“Prigozhin’s statements and actions are in fact a call to start an armed civil conflict on the territory of the Russian Federation and a stab in the back to Russian servicemen fighting pro-fascist Ukrainian forces,” the FSB said in a statement.

The security service also called on Wagner fighters to “take measures to detain” their leade

In addition, the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin had been informed and that “necessary measures are being taken”.

The standoff, many of the details of which remained unclear, appears to be the biggest domestic crisis Putin has faced since he sent thousands of troops into Ukraine in February of last year in what he called “a special military operation”.

Prigozhin, whose frequent tirades on social media belie his limited role in the war as head of the Wagner private militia, has for months been openly accusing Shoigu and Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov, of rank incompetence and of denying his forces ammunition and support.

“It’s really quite extraordinary. Prigozhin has been critical of the way in which the Ministry of Defence and the official Russian military have been prosecuting this war, really from the very beginning, calling them unprofessional, accusing them of leading unnecessary deaths of Russian soldiers,” Sam Greene, the director for democratic resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Al Jazeera.

“But he has certainly taken that quite a few steps further.”

Greene described the Russian war in Ukraine as a “money-making endeavour” for defence services — and the way he sees it, Prigozhin and Shoigu are jostling for resources and control. But Greene added that it is unclear what Prigozhin’s strategy is at present.

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“I will be honest: It is very difficult for me to understand the calculation that Prigozhin is making here,” Greene said. “This really is such a significant challenge that he either has to win it outright, or it’s hard to see how he’s going to survive in this system — or in fact to survive at all.”




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