Mutinous Russian mercenary fighters headed towards Moscow on Saturday after seizing a southern city overnight, with Russia’s military firing on them from the air but seemingly incapable of slowing their lightning advance.
Facing the first serious challenge to his grip on power of his 23-year rule, President Vladimir Putin vowed to crush an armed mutiny he compared to Russia’s Civil War a century ago.
The fighters of the Wagner private army run by former Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin were already most of the way to the capital, having captured the city of Rostov and set off on an 1,100 km (680 mile) race to Moscow.
Reuters saw troop carriers and a flatbed truck carrying a tank driving past the city of Voronezh more than half way to Moscow, where a helicopter fired on them. But there were no reports of the rebels meeting any substantial resistance on the highway.
A source close to the leadership in the Russian-held part of Ukraine’s Donetsk province said the convoy nearing Moscow had about 5,000 fighters, with a similar number in Rostov. Overall, Wagner has fewer than 25,000 men at its disposal, said the source, who has proved reliable in the past.
In a televised address from the Kremlin, Putin said Russia’s very existence was under threat.
“We are fighting for the lives and security of our people, for our sovereignty and independence, for the right to remain Russia, a state with a thousand-year history,” he said.
“All those who deliberately stepped on the path of betrayal, who prepared an armed insurrection, who took the path of blackmail and terrorist methods, will suffer inevitable punishment, will answer both to the law and to our people.”
Putin later signed a law tightening rules for breaking martial law in places where it has been imposed, the RIA news agency said.