Canada pledged to keep a close eye on escalating tensions in Russia on Saturday as an armed rebellion threatened to divide the country's attention and forces amid its ongoing war in Ukraine.
Authorities in Russia are trying to tamp down the rebellion led by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. The millionaire has been outspoken for months in his criticisms against Russia's military leaders, accusing them of not providing enough munitions in the key battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut.
But these tensions escalated ahead of the weekend, when an accusation Friday by Prigozhin against Russia's defence minister provoked the country's top counterterrorism organization to launch a criminal inquiry against the mercenary leader and call for his arrest. It came as Prigozhin led his troops out of Ukraine en route to the Russian capital of Moscow.
As of Saturday, Britain's Ministry of Defence said Prigozhin's Wagner group appeared to control military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, the southern city more than 1,000 kilometres from Moscow where Russia's operations in Ukraine are run. Prigozhin also posted video of himself at the military headquarters there and claimed his forces had taken control of the airfield and other military facilities in the city.
Wagner troops and equipment have also entered Russia's Lipetsk province, around 360 kilometres south of the Russian capital.
Canada's incident response group will meet on Saturday to discuss the latest developments in Russia, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a tweet Saturday morning.
"We’re in contact with our allies and will continue to monitor the situation closely," it read.
A tweet earlier in the day from foreign affairs minister Mélanie Joly said the G7 foreign ministers held a call to discuss the overnight developments in Russia, but offered no further details.
The U.S. State Department and German Foreign Ministry also gave few details on the talks, which also included the European Union’s foreign policy chief. But the State Department reaffirmed the country's support for Ukraine and said it will stay in coordination with allies.
Authorities have tightened security in a number of Russian regions amid the tensions. The governor of the region surrounding Moscow has suspended mass public events outdoors and at educational institutions until July 1.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has vowed harsh punishment for the armed rebellion's organizers, calling the uprising "a stab in the back."
The Russian Foreign Ministry warned the West on Saturday against trying to take advantage of the rebellion, saying the Russian public stands behind Putin.
However, Ukraine's deputy defense minister said that the "political crisis" in Russia may provide Kyiv with a "window of opportunity" amid the ongoing war between the two countries. Russia invaded Ukraine in February of last year.
Hanna Maliar wrote on Telegram that Russia's war against Ukraine has brought about “the inevitable degradation of the Russian state.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, also speaking on Telegram, said the rebellion within Russia betrays the country's "full-scale weakness."
"Russia's weakness is obvious," he said. "And the longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our land, the more chaos, pain and problems it will have for itself later. This is also obvious.”
The CEO and executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress issued an emailed statement on Saturday saying Russia's war efforts continue despite the turmoil closer to home.
"Now is the time for Canada and allies to provide Ukraine all the weapons needed to defeat Russia," said Ihor Michalchyshyn. "Give the Ukrainians what they need to win and they will win."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2023.
— With files from The Associated Press