How will the short but shocking mutiny by a Russian paramilitary group affect the war in Ukraine?
In muddy field bunkers and chilly war rooms lit by blinking electronic screens, that question is being assessed by Ukrainian officials and field commanders — and the answer may depend largely on the time frame involved.
An emerging consensus appears to hold that the abortive weekend uprising orchestrated by Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the notorious private army known as the Wagner group, is unlikely to have an instantaneous impact on battlefield fortunes in Russia’s 16-month-old invasion of Ukraine.
That’s in part because Wagner’s mercenaries, having spearheaded Russia’s recent capture of the eastern city of Bakhmut, had already been pulled back from front-line positions, handing over the task of defensive measures to the regular Russian army.
And the chaotic 24-hour armed rebellion, which culminated Saturday in an amnesty deal for Prigozhin, still leaves Ukrainian troops confronting a formidable maze of dug-in strongholds along a crescent-shaped battlefront that stretches for hundreds of miles in southern and eastern Ukraine.
“On the immediate front line, many obstacles facing Ukrainian forces such as landmines, 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 question entirely. The extraordinary spectacle of Wagner mercenaries marching on Moscow before abruptly standing down represented a harsh blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s power and prestige.
“We’ve seen some very serious cracks emerge,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Sunday on ABC. “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 on the doorstep of Kyiv in Ukraine looking to take the city in a matter of days, erase the country from the map. Now, he’s had to defend Moscow, Russia’s capital, against a mercenary of his own making.”
The Biden administration, long aware of Prigozhin’s potential to turn on his benefactor and the chaos it could breed, spent most of the weekend in urgent consultations with allies from Europe and NATO. Several senior officials canceled travel and other plans and were holed up with President Biden at Camp David as events in Russia unfolded.
On Sunday, Biden telephoned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to ponder the events in Russia and to reaffirm the United States’ “unwavering support” for Kyiv. And Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said he spoke to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, and the two agreed Russian forces were “weak.”
It remains unclear what persuaded Prigozhin to order his troops to do an about-face after nearly reaching Moscow. Putin, who has not been seen in public since a fiery speech early Saturday threatening to prosecute Prigozhin and his men as traitors, apparently blinked first. The Kremlin announced that no prosecution would be launched, Prigozhin would be allowed to fly to neighboring Belarus, a Moscow puppet state, and many of his mercenaries supposedly will be folded into Russia’s regular army.
But it is unclear whether they would accept army command, since the top generals were a prime target of Prigozhin’s wrath.
“This could be a game that is playing out that we really don’t understand,” Angela Stent, an emerita 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 actually in Belarus. Let’s see what actually happens to him.”
She noted that for years, the Wagner group through its exploits around the world, propping up African warlords and bagging millions of dollars from exploitative, deadly gold and diamond mines, has been the single most effective way Putin had to project global power. “It’s not going to go away,” she predicted.
Russia’s military, previously regarded as one of the world’s most powerful, 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 gains over the summer months — a campaign that has yet to gather full force.
So far, Ukrainian forces have mainly confined themselves to “shaping” operations, seeking to set conditions for wider confrontations to come, without yet making full use of newly trained and Western-equipped brigades.
In the days before the Prigozhin mutiny, Ukrainian officials had expressed concern with the notion that summertime fighting would swiftly yield sweeping territorial gains like those Ukrainian forces notched last autumn.
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“Some people believe this is a Hollywood movie and expect results now — it’s not,” Zelensky told the BBC last week. “Whatever some might want, including attempts to pressure us, with all due respect, we will advance on the battlefield the way we deem best.”
Recent advances have been slow and sometimes costly, but Ukrainian officials over the weekend reported more progress in villages surrounding Bakhmut, which fell last month, and also disclosed the recapture of territory near the town of Krasnohorivka, in Donetsk province, which had been held by Russia since 2014.
Prigozhin launched his short-lived rebellion by seizing control of Russia’s main rear logistical hub for the war, the military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. Late Saturday and Sunday, social media images circulated of locals cheering and posing for selfies with the paramilitary chieftain as his forces pulled back from the city — a sight that may have been unnerving to Putin and his allies.
“Putin talked tough in his national address,” Michael McFaul, a political scientist at Stanford University and former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said Sunday on Twitter. “He sounded like someone preparing for a big fight. But when faced with the difficult decision of trying to stop Wagner mercenaries with major force, he backed down. … He was the rat trapped in the corner … [b]ut he didn’t lash out and go crazy. He negotiated with a traitor.”
Some analysts suggested Putin will now feel pressured to launch dramatic military attacks in Ukraine, but his army may prove unable to follow through.
In the weeks and months leading up to his mutiny, Prigozhin launched blistering attacks on the Russian senior military command over harrowing field conditions faced by Russian troops. The impact on morale is difficult to quantify, but Ukraine has sought to amplify Russian soldiers’ depictions on social media of shortages of food and ammunition and commanders’ incompetence.
The abortive rebellion gave Ukrainian officials a fresh opportunity to mock the Russian command as well as Prigozhin. Yuri Sak, an advisor to Reznikov, the defense minister, called the episode “the most ridiculous attempt at mutiny” ever.
Speaking to the BBC, Sak said it would have no bearing on Ukraine’s military aims — “a mission to liberate our land.”
As the Prigozhin-led uprising flared and then fizzled out, ordinary Ukrainians responded to the disarray next door with an avalanche of online jokes and memes, often involving huge piles of popcorn.
Pensioner Valeriy Beliankyn, out for a morning stroll near a gold-domed monastery in central Kyiv, said he wasn’t worried about Prigozhin’s exile to Belarus, whose border lies less than 100 miles from the Ukrainian capital.
“It would have been better if they had stayed on the road to Moscow,” he said of the Wagner forces. “But we’re not worried about them taking the road to Kyiv. We’re standing strong.”
Earlier in the war, Putin was happy enough to exploit Wagner’s firepower and willingness to engage in savage tactics to achieve military aims. The capture of Bakhmut led by Wagner was Russia’s only such territorial success of the year.
Wagner’s ongoing role in Ukraine is now unclear. The Kremlin said fighters who took part in the mutiny would not be prosecuted, while those members of the private army who did not join in would be offered contracts with the Defense Ministry.
Analysts have suggested that it was a Defense Ministry announcement earlier this month that “volunteer formations” such as Wagner would have to sign such contracts — bringing Prigozhin under tighter control — that set the stage for the uprising.
King reported from Kyiv and Wilkinson from Washington.