On the second day of an attempted coup that has the world watching warily, Wagner boss and now enemy of the Russian state Yevgeny Prigozhin and the core of his forces remain entrenched in Rostov, while other elements are now holding Voronezh, which sits between Rostov and Moscow along the M4 highway. Additional Wagner forces are said to have splintered off and continued on a push to the Russian capital. Now, it appears that some of those elements have come under fire.
You can and should get up to speed on the situation, including a full explainer on how it begun and rapidly evolved, by checking out our previous rolling coverage here.
A column of Prigozhin’s forces with troop carriers and at least one tank on a flatbed truck passing by the southern city of Voronezh has come under fire by Russian attack helicopters, according to a Reuters journalist who witnessed the event.
It appears that some heavy roadblocks put on the highway have been breached by Wagner forces.
The city of Voronezh — more than halfway along the 1,100-km (680-mile) highway from Rostov to Moscow — was supposedly the scene of brief fighting earlier in the day between Wagner troops and Russian forces. Putin has vowed to brutally crush what he is calling an act of “treason” and “betrayal.” It appears that Russian military and security forces are beefing up their presence near there ahead of what could be a far more intense clash.
Residents of Voronezh are said to be in a state of panic, unable to leave, and are queuing up for gas and food, and for train rides out of the area, but the central part of the city has so far not seen any major fighting between Wagner and Russian troops, according to a witness there. Wagner says they seized the city and its military installations hours ago.
Prigozhin was able to seize the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don with virtually no resistance, going directly to the headquarters of the Southern Military District and taking control of it. In an impromptu address, Prigozhin said he would not interfere with military operations against Ukraine, but his control of the Southern Military District and its installations in the area of Roston would make sure Russian military capabilities aren’t used against him. He also said he had fired nobody and everyone can continue to do their jobs.
There are also widespread reports that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s troops are now in or very near Rostov on behalf of Putin. Kadryrov publicly sided with Putin shortly after his national address where he deemed Prigozhin and his Wagner forces traitors.
In a statement, Kadyrov described Prigozhin’s behavior as “a knife in the back” and called on Russian soldiers not to give in to any “provocations.”
Prigozhin, aware of those approaching forces, said he anticipates a violent clash.
«A battle is expected for Rostov-on-Don between PMC Wagner and [Kadyrov],” he said on his Telegram channel. “They want to arrange a bloody massacre.”
Pushing back against the comments from Putin, for whom he once famously served as a chef before his meteoric rise as a global mercenary warlord, Prigozhin said the Russian president “was deeply mistaken” in calling him a traitor.
“No one is going to turn themselves in at the request of the president … We don’t want the country to continue to live in corruption and lies,” he added. “We are patriots, and those who are against us are the ones who gathered around the bastards,” Prigozhin said.
You can read a full translation of that message in the tweet below.
Meanwhile, RIA Novosti reports that Putin today signed a law on fines and administrative arrest for up to 30 days for violating martial law in places where it has been imposed. According to TASS, while citizens can be fined up to 1,000 rubles (almost $12) or face administrative arrest of up to 30 days, for officials, the fine can be doubled.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, obviously paying close attention to the unfolding drama, called it a sign of Russian «weakness.»
“For a long time, Russia used propaganda to mask its weakness and the stupidity of its government,» Zelensky said on Twitter. «And now there is so much chaos that no lie can hide it. And all this is one person, who again and again scares by the year 1917, although he is able to result in nothing else but this.»
“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. It is also obvious. Ukraine is able to protect Europe from the spread of Russian evil and chaos. We keep our resilience, unity, and strength.»
And despite what’s playing out with Prigozhin, the war still rages on. The Russian Defense Ministry has maintained a measure of command and control, ordering airstrikes across Ukraine that resulted in at least two deaths in Kyiv according to authorities there.
There is a swirl of other activity as part of this rapidly evolving situation. Footage yesterday showed Russian KA-52 attack helicopters bombing a fuel depot in Voronezh, a move seemingly aimed at starving Wagner of fuel, although that would take some time regardless of the depot being hit. Now we are seeing more KA-52 operations, including one that may have narrowly missed being shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
This appears to be the engagement from another angle.
Russian airpower is quite active over the Voronezh area, with additional KA-52s and Su-27/30/35s seen in the skies.
Wagner is setting up it’s own roadblocks in Rostov ahead of what could be an incredibly bloody fight.
Tensions are also growing outside the seized Southern Military District headquarters and in greater Rostov following Putin’s speech.
Flight-tracking data indicates the movement of a Russian military presidential transport aircraft departing Moscow in the direction of St. Petersburg, although this could also be a routine flight.
The events of the next few days have wide ramifications. Ukraine has already attempted to take advantage of the chaos, with reported attacks in the Bakhmut area. But beyond that is the troubling issue of an internal fracture in a nation with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
This is a dangerous and extremely fluid situation. We will update this story as more information comes in.
Contact the author: email@example.com