Israel issues advisory warning against travel to Russia as mercenary group rebels

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The Foreign Ministry issued a travel advisory against travel to Russia Saturday evening, as Vladimir Putin’s regime faced a mutiny by the mercenary Wagner Group.

A ministry notice advised Israelis “to weigh the necessity” of traveling to Russia and urged those in the country “to weigh the essentiality” of remaining in the country. It also called on those in Russia to avoid “hotspots.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council were set to hold meetings Saturday evening on developments in Russia.

Channel 12 news noted that issuing the travel advisory was sensitive for Jerusalem, which has sought to navigate between the desire to offer some support for Ukraine amid the ongoing Russian invasion while maintaining ties with Moscow.

Israel’s need to carry out airstrikes on Iranian-linked targets in neighboring Syria, where there is a Russian military presence, and the need to protect the large Jewish community in Russia, have been cited as the primary reasons for the Israeli stance on the fighting in Ukraine.

A number of Hebrew media outlets reported that the Foreign Ministry was planning to send additional consul officials to Moscow and St. Petersburg in the coming days due to an expected rise in requests for travel documents.

Citing Foreign Ministry estimates, the reports said some 70,000 Israeli citizens are believed to currently be in Russia, along with some 500,000 Jews and those eligible to immigrate to Israel.

Rebel mercenaries advanced north towards Moscow after seizing a key military base Saturday, just as Kremlin chief Putin vowed to defeat the revolt and head off the threat of civil war.

Members of Wagner Group sit atop a tank in a street in the city of Rostov-on-Don, on June 24, 2023. (Roman Romokhov/AFP)

The rapidly escalating events mark the most serious challenge yet to the Russian president’s rule — and Russia’s most serious security crisis since the strongman came to power in late 1999.

Putin’s spokesman insisted the Russian leader was still at work in the Kremlin and had not fled Moscow, as regular forces launched a “counter-terrorist operation” to halt the rebel advance in the Voronezh region, on the Wagner force’s route to the capital.

The governor of the Lipetsk region, whose capital is just 420 kilometers (260 miles) south of Moscow, said Wagner’s private military force was “moving across” the territory and urged civilians not to leave their homes.

In the capital, the mayor urged Muscovites to stay indoors and declared Monday a day off work.

“The situation is difficult. I ask you to refrain from traveling around the city as much as possible,” Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said in a statement, warning of possible road closures.

Ukrainian leaders, meanwhile, reveled in the outbreak of in-fighting among its Russian foes, with a deputy defense minister describing it as a “window of opportunity” for Kyiv’s latest counteroffensive to rid its territory of Russian forces.

Kyiv’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny talked to US chairman of the joint chiefs General Mark Milley and told him that Ukraine’s counteroffensive “was going according to plan.”

The Russian foreign ministry retorted that it would achieve all the goals set for what it calls the “special military operation” would be achieved, and warned the West against trying to exploit the revolt for “Russophobic goals.”

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, once a close Putin ally, said his troops had taken control of the military command center and airbase in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, the nerve center of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine, and vowed to topple Moscow’s top military leaders.

“We got to Rostov. Without a single shot we captured the HQ building,” he said, in an audio message on social media channels, claiming that local civilians had welcomed the operation.

A local resident speaks with a member of Wagner Group in Rostov-on-Don, on June 24, 2023. (Denis Romanov/AFP)

“Why does the country support us? Because we went on a march of justice,” he said, claiming his men had not killed any soldiers despite having been hit with strikes from army “artillery and after that from helicopters.”

Responding to the challenge in a televised address, Putin accused Prigozhin — whose private army provided shock troops for Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine — of a “stab in the back” that posed a threat to Russia’s very survival.

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