How will the brief but shocking mutiny by a Russian paramilitary group affect the war in Ukraine?
In muddy field bunkers and frigid war rooms lit by flickering electronic screens, Ukrainian officials and field commanders are weighing that question, and the answer may depend heavily on the time frame involved.
An emerging consensus seems to hold that the abortive weekend uprising orchestrated by Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the notorious private army known as the Wagner group, is unlikely to have an instant impact on the fortunes of the battlefield in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 16 months.
That’s partly because Wagner’s mercenaries, who spearheaded Russia’s recent capture of the eastern city of Bakhmut, had already been withdrawn from front-line positions, handing the task of defensive measures to the Russian regular army. .
And the chaotic 24-hour rebellion, which culminated in an amnesty deal for Prigozhin on Saturday, still leaves Ukrainian troops facing a formidable maze of entrenched fortresses along a crescent-shaped battlefront stretching for hundreds of kilometers in the south and east of Ukraine.
“In the immediate front line, many obstacles facing the Ukrainian forces, such as land mines, fortifications, and the Russian troops defending them, will likely remain unchanged,” Jacob Mezey wrote in an article for the Atlantic Council.
But the long-term prosecution of the war is another matter entirely. The extraordinary spectacle of Wagner’s mercenaries marching on Moscow before abruptly withdrawing dealt a severe blow to the power and prestige of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We have seen some very serious cracks emerge,” US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on ABC on Sunday. “It’s still a moving picture and I doubt we’ve seen the last act.”
Blinken added: “And of course, if you put this in context, 16 months ago Putin was at the gates of kyiv in the Ukraine looking to take the city in a matter of days, wipe the country off the map. Now, he has had to defend Moscow, the capital of Russia, against a mercenary created by himself.
The Biden administration, long aware of Progozhin’s potential to turn on its benefactor and the chaos it could wreak, spent most of the weekend in urgent consultations with allies in Europe and NATO. Several top officials canceled trips and other plans and holed up with President Biden at Camp David as events in Russia unfolded.
It is unclear what convinced Prigozhin to order his troops to turn back after nearly reaching Moscow. Putin, who has not been seen in public since a fiery speech early Saturday in which he threatened to prosecute Prigozhin and his men as traitors, apparently blinked first. The Kremlin announced that no process would be launched, that Prigozhin would be allowed to fly to neighboring Belarus, a puppet state of Moscow, and many of his mercenaries would reportedly join Russia’s regular army.
But it is not clear if they would accept command of the army, since the main generals were the main target of Prigozhin’s anger.
“This could be a game that we don’t really understand,” Angela Stent, an emeritus professor at Georgetown University who specializes in Eastern Europe, said Sunday in an online group chat sponsored by the Brookings Institution. “Let’s see if (Prigozhin) is really in Belarus. Let’s see what really happens to him.”
He noted that for years, the Wagner group through its exploits around the world, propping up African warlords and pocketing millions of dollars from exploitative and deadly gold and diamond mines, has been the most effective way it had Putin to project global power. “It’s not going away,” he predicted.
Russia’s military, previously considered one of the most powerful in the world, suffered a series of humiliating setbacks in the first year of fighting in Ukraine. And Ukraine is now under intense international pressure to make significant military advances during the summer months, a campaign that has yet to come into full force.
Until now, Ukrainian forces have been limited mainly to “setup” operations, seeking to set the conditions for broader confrontations to come, without making full use of newly trained and Western-equipped brigades.
In the days leading up to the Prigozhin mutiny, Ukrainian officials had raised concerns that the summer fighting would quickly produce sweeping territorial gains like those achieved by Ukrainian forces last fall.
“Some people believe that this is a Hollywood movie and expect results now, they are not,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the BBC last week. “Whatever some want, including attempts to pressure us, with all due respect, we will advance on the battlefield in the way we see fit.”
Recent advances have been slow and sometimes costly, but Ukrainian officials over the weekend reported further progress in the villages surrounding Bakhmut, which fell last month, and also revealed the recovery of territory near the city of Krasnohorivka, in Donetsk province, which had been in Russian hands since 2014.
Prigozhin launched his short-lived rebellion by seizing control of Russia’s main rear logistics center for the war, the military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. On Saturday and Sunday nights, images circulated on social media of locals cheering and posing for selfies with the paramilitary chief as his forces withdrew from the city, a sight that may have unnerved Putin and his allies. .
“Putin spoke tough in his national address,” Michael McFaul, a Stanford University political scientist and former US ambassador to Russia, said on Twitter on Sunday. “He sounded like someone preparing for a big fight. But when he was faced with the difficult decision of trying to stop Wagner’s mercenaries with great force, he backed down. …He was the rat caught in the corner…(b) but he didn’t lash out and went crazy. He negotiated with a traitor.
Some analysts have suggested that Putin will now feel pressure to launch dramatic military strikes in Ukraine, but his army may prove incapable of carrying them out.
In the weeks and months leading up to his mutiny, Prigozhin launched heavy attacks on the Russian military high command over the harrowing field conditions facing Russian troops. The impact on morale is hard to quantify, but Ukraine has tried to amplify depictions of Russian soldiers on social media about food and ammunition shortages and commanders’ incompetence.
The aborted rebellion gave Ukrainian officials a new opportunity to outwit the Russian command and Prigozhin. Yuri Sak, adviser to Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, called the episode “the most ridiculous attempted mutiny” in history.
Speaking to the BBC, Sak said he would have nothing to do with Ukraine’s military objectives: “a mission to liberate our land.”
When the Prigozhin-led uprising erupted and then fizzled out, ordinary Ukrainians responded to the mess next door with a deluge of online jokes and memes, often with huge mounds of popcorn.
Retired Valeriy Beliankyn, out for a morning walk near a gold-domed monastery in central Kiev, said he was not worried about Prigozhin’s exile to Belarus, whose border is less than 100 miles from the city. Ukrainian capital.
“It would have been better if they had stayed on the way to Moscow,” he said of Wagner’s forces. “But we are not worried that they will take the road to kyiv. We stand firm.”
Early in the war, Putin was happy enough to exploit Wagner’s firepower and willingness to engage in savage tactics to achieve military objectives. The Wagner-led capture of Bakhmut was Russia’s only territorial success of the year.
Wagner’s current role in Ukraine is now unclear. The Kremlin said fighters who took part in the mutiny would not be prosecuted, while members of the private military who did not join would be offered contracts with the Defense Ministry.
Analysts have suggested that it was a Defense Ministry announcement earlier this month that “volunteer formations” like Wagner would have to sign such contracts, putting Prigozhin under tighter control, that set the stage for the uprising. .
King reported from kyiv and Wilkinson from Washington.