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Editor's note: The article has been updated with the reported development that the Wagner Group has halted its advance on Moscow.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has vowed to enact harsh punishment against a Russian mercenary group that recently launched a rebellion. Yevgeny Prigozhin is leading the Wagner Group, composed of private Russian mercenaries, on a "march of justice" toward the country's capital of Moscow.
Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin and what is the Wagner Group?
Yevgeny Prigozhin was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Early in his life, he was a convict and owned a hot dog stand, but later branched out to operate fancy restaurants.
ABC News reported:
In 2010, Putin helped open Prigozhin’s factory that was built on generous loans by a state bank. In Moscow alone, his company Concord won millions of dollars in contracts to provide meals at public schools. He also organized catering for Kremlin events for several years — earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef” — and has provided catering and utility services to the Russian military."
In 2014, Prigozhin became the leader of the Wagner Group, a private military company that participated in Russia's annexation of Crimea.
PMC Wagner had been fighting alongside Russian military forces in the invasion of Ukraine. Last year, the Kremlin-backed Wagner group attempted to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, according to The Times.
According to the Associated Press, "The Wagner forces have played a crucial role in Russia’s war in Ukraine, succeeding in taking the city where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place, Bakhmut. But Prigozhin has increasingly criticized Russia’s military brass, accusing it of incompetence and of starving his troops of weapons and ammunition."
Prigozhin, 61, said he transitioned from a Putin ally to staging a serious rebellion because of an alleged Russian attack on Wagner forces in Ukraine.
Prigozhin claimed that Russia's chief of the General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, ordered airstrikes on Wagner’s convoys, which were driving alongside ordinary vehicles. He asserted that the attack killed "a huge number of our comrades." Prigozhin alleged that Gerasimov made the order after a meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The Russian Defense Ministry denied attacking Wagner troops.
Prigozhin, who claimed to have 25,000 troops under his command, said the Wagner Group would punish Shoigu in an armed rebellion and possible civil war.
"All of us are ready to die. All 25,000, and then another 25,000," Prigozhin declared.
Wagner Group chief accuses Russian army of attacking Wagner forceswww.youtube.com
Where is the Wagner Group now?
Prigozhin marched his Wagner PMC soldiers from Ukraine back to Russia this week. Wagner troops entered Rostov-on-Don – Russia's ninth-most populated city with more than 1 million residents. Rostov-on-Don is home to the Russian military headquarters for the southern region and also oversees the war in Ukraine.
He asserted that he easily breached checkpoints in the city.
Prigozhin claimed the Wagner Group had seized control of a Russian military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don "without a single gunshot." He added that his private military group fighters had taken control of the airfield and other military facilities in the city.
"We didn’t kill a single person on our way," Prigozhin said on Friday. "But we will destroy anyone who stands in our way. We are moving forward and will go until the end."
He said of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, "The war was needed for a bunch of scumbags to triumph and show how strong of an army they are."
"We do not want the country to live on in corruption, deceit, and bureaucracy," he said.
Prigozhin has openly chastised Russia's military leadership, and has disputed how successful the invasion of Ukraine has been.
"The evil embodied by the country’s military leadership must be stopped," the PMC Wagner leader declared.
PMC Wagner military equipment was "moving across" the Lipetsk region, Governor Igor Artamonov said via Telegram on Saturday. The region is 250 miles south of Moscow, signaling that the Russian private paramilitary organization could be headed to the Russian capital.
There were several reports that the Wagner Group halted its advance on Moscow.
Reuters reported, "Mutinous Russian mercenary fighters who surged most of the way to Moscow have agreed to turn back to avoid bloodshed, their leader said on Saturday, in a de-escalation of what had become a major challenge to President Vladimir Putin's grip on power."
Prigozhin reportedly said on Saturday, "Now the moment has come when blood could be spilled. Understanding responsibility [for the chance] that Russian blood will be spilled on one side, we are turning our columns around and going back to field camps as planned."
How is Vladimir Putin dealing with the mercenary uprising?
Vladimir Putin pledged to punish the mutineers and crush the rebellion – which is arguably the most serious threat to his hold on power since he took power in Russia 23 years ago.
"All those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment," Putin proclaimed in a speech to the nation. "The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders."
Putin called the rebellion a "stab in the back."
He said the uprising arrives at a time when Russia is "fighting the toughest battle for its future," adding, "The entire military, economic, and information machine of the West is waged against us."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, "All the necessary measures were being taken."
Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, has demanded that Prigozhin be arrested by his contract soldiers. The FSB also instructed the Wagner Group troops to refuse to follow his "criminal and treacherous orders" and halt the potential coup.
Russia's National Anti-Terrorism Committee has charged Prigozhin with calling for an armed rebellion – which carries a punishment of up to 20 years in prison.
A counterterrorism state of emergency has been declared in Moscow.
Russia's National Anti-Terrorism Committee announced on Saturday morning, "In order to prevent possible terrorist attacks in the city and Moscow region, a regime of counterterrorism operations has been established."
Putin issues blunt warning to Wagner groupwww.youtube.com
How has the U.S. responded to the Russian rebellion?
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held an emergency call on Saturday morning with G7 and European Union officials regarding the developments in Russia.
"The United States will stay in close coordination with Allies and partners as the situation continues to develop," Blinken wrote on Twitter.
U.S. National Security Council Adam Hodge said, "We are monitoring the situation and will be consulting with allies and partners on these developments."
Volodymyr Zelenskyy said of the rebellion, "Anyone who chooses the path of evil destroys himself."
"For a long time, Russia used propaganda to mask its weakness and the stupidity of its government. And now there is so much chaos that no lie can hide it," Zelensky said. "Russia’s weakness is obvious. Full-scale weakness. And the longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain and problems it will have for itself later."
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Tensions mount in Russia as notorious Wagner group seizes military headquarterswww.youtube.com
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Paul Sacca is a staff writer for Blaze News.