The U.S. and Europe are closely watching an unfolding battle between Russian President Vladimir Putin and chief of the private mercenary group Wagner that sparked in earnest early Saturday morning, with leaders describing the outbreak of fighting as “chaos” and intelligence saying the infighting poses the most significant challenge to the Russian state in recent times.
“Over the coming hours, the loyalty of Russia’s security forces, and especially the Russian National Guard, will be key to how the crisis plays out,” the U.K. Ministry of Defense tweeted on Saturday.
The ministry’s assessment said forces that are part of the Wagner Group and headed by the group’s leader, businessman and former caterer to Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, have “almost certainly occupied key security sites” in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, including the headquarters which runs Russia’s military operations in Ukraine.
“Further Wagner units are moving north through Vorenezh Oblast, almost certainly aiming to get to Moscow. With very limited evidence of fighting between Wagner and Russian security forces, some have likely remained passive, acquiescing to Wagner,” the ministry tweeted.
Foreign ministers of the Group of 7 nations held a call Saturday morning, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, adding that the U.S. will stay in close coordination with member states, to include Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and the European Union.
National Security Spokesperson Adam Hodge said in a statement to The Hill that “we are monitoring the situation and will be consulting with allies and partners on these developments.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former CIA analyst, called the events in Russia “breathtaking” and described the unfolding fighting as “the clearest public confirmation of the folly of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.”
“Remember: Wagner, a private military force, was brought into Ukraine and put on the frontlines because of the failures of Russia’s regular military. This would be the equivalent of the U.S. military depending on an armed defense contractor, and that contractor then turning on U.S. leadership and marching to Washington. The weakness of the once-formidable Russian military is stunning,” she said in a statement.
The congresswoman called for the U.S. to watch events closely, assist Ukraine in exploiting any battlefield opportunities and to stay “flexible and alert at an unpredictable moment in history.”
“Last, while any challenge to Putin’s dictatorship is historic, we should remember: Prigozhin and Wagner are not good guys coming to liberate Russia and make it a blooming democracy,” she said.
Wagner’s apparent coup against parts of the Russian military on Saturday follows months of public feuding between the group’s mercurial leader Prigozhin and Russia’s top military officials, including the Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
Prigozhin has accused the generals and the Russian Ministry of Defense of holding back weapons and ammunition for his private military company and launching attacks against them.
Wagner mercenaries are on the front lines of Russia’s nearly 16-month war of aggression against Ukraine and have led and participated in some of the deadliest battles, with U.S. officials describing those fighters as being fed into a meat grinder.
Late Friday, the mercenary group leader posted an extraordinary video challenging the Kremlin’s propaganda and saying that Russia’s war in Ukraine was based on lies. Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAC) opened a criminal case against Prigozhin within hours.
Putin, who is the subject of an international arrest warrant for war crimes committed in Ukraine, delivered a speech referring to Prigozhin’s actions as “betrayal” and “treason.”
The Kremlin posted on its Telegram channel that Putin held a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the initiative of Ankara, to discuss the situation of “an attempted arm rebellion.”
Erdogan expressed “full support for the steps taken by the Russian leadership,” the Kremlin said. Turkey, a NATO ally, has maintained ties with Moscow despite its war in Ukraine, holding back from international sanctions imposed by the majority of members of the alliance.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted early Saturday that “Russia’s weakness is obvious. Full-scale weakness.”
In countries bordering Ukraine and Russia, European leaders are describing the civil fighting in Russia as “chaos,” consulting with allies and are convening emergency meetings to assess the situation.
Polish President Andrzej Duda said the situation in Russia prompted consultations with the prime minister and the Ministry of National Defense and allies.
“The course of events beyond our eastern border is monitored on an ongoing basis,” he tweeted.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni also said she was in touch with international allies, during a press conference alongside Austrian Karl Nehammer at the Europa-Forum Wachau, Italian media reported, describing the situation inside Russia as “chaos” and saying it is “not easy” to establish what is happening inside Russia.
Meloni has called for an emergency meeting of the government and intelligence services.
European officials hawkish on support for Ukraine are holding up the chaos in Russia as a key step in helping Kyiv to victory.
“For 100 years Lithuanians have lived on the edge of Moscow’s brutal banditocracy, knowing it’s only a matter of time before the next chaotic implosion,” Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis tweeted.
“We are not distracted. We see clearly in the chaos. The goal, as ever, is victory and justice for Ukraine. The time is now.”