Reports of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plane leaving Moscow early on Saturday have sparked rumors that he fled the capital as the Wagner Group’s mercenary forces advanced towards the city.
The president’s aircraft was tracked on flight radar flying northwest from Moscow towards the St Petersburg area but disappeared from the system near the city of Tver, where Putin owns a large rural retreat.
While Putin’s spokesman denied the rumors, the governor of the Russian region of Lipetsk confirmed that a military column carrying Wagner Group men and materiel was on the move through the village of Krasnoye, about 250 miles from the capital, and heading north.
The Wagner Group, a private military company, has taken control of one Russian city and gained a foothold in another, creating the biggest threat to Putin’s presidency in his long career.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has announced that his forces are coming to help Russia put down the mutiny by the private Wagner Group. The group’s head and one-time Putin-ally Yevgeny Prigozhin’s hardened fighters from his private militia seized control of Rostov-on-Don, a city of nearly a million people on the Ukraine border that serves as the logistical hub for Russia’s entire invasion force, and were moving rapidly north through western Russia.
Previously, Wagner forces had moved through Voronezh, about 385 miles from Moscow, according to multiple reports.
Russian military helicopters took aim at a convoy of rebel mercenaries moving through Voronezh, including troop carriers and at least one tank on a flatbed truck.
In Moscow, there was an increased security presence on the streets with reports of sandbags blocking key arteries. Putin compared Prigozhin’s show of force to the Bolshevik revolution and Russia’s civil war that began a little over 100 years ago. Prigozhin, who has long criticized Russian military brass for how it’s handled the war, clapped back at Putin, stating that they are patriots of their Motherland and that they fought and are fighting for it.
At stake for Putin is whether he can marshal enough forces to fight off the Wagner Group at home, while so many of his troops are deployed at the front and in southern Ukraine. The crisis inside Russia comes as Kyiv has just launched its biggest counteroffensive since the war’s start in February 2022.
Prigozhin, who oversees a private army of thousands of fighters recruited from Russian jails, insists that the Russian people are on his side, not Putin’s. He claims that they reached Rostov without a single shot and seized the headquarters building. Locals are offering to pay for food and drinks for his men because they want to contribute.
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