Vladimir Putin’s strongman mask is slipping, and Ukraine sees opportunity in the chaos.
Warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny over the weekend exposed Putin’s tenuous grip on the levers of power, disunity within his ranks and the weakness of Russia’s border defenses. How easily Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries were able to take control of Russian territory and march up to 200 kilometers from Moscow – and the videos of the Russians I root for them — showed that Putin’s regime is far from invincible.
« Today the world saw that Russia’s leaders control nothing, » Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his evening address late Saturday. “In one day, they lost many of their million-plus cities and showed all Russian bandits, mercenaries, oligarchs and anyone else how easy it is to capture Russian cities and, probably, arsenals of weapons.”
Switching from Ukrainian to Russian, Zelensky continued in what was clearly a message to Putin’s apparatus: “The man from the Kremlin is obviously very afraid and is probably hiding somewhere, unseen. I’m sure he’s not in Moscow anymore… he knows what he’s afraid of because he created this threat himself. All the bad, all the losses, all the hatred – he foments it himself. The longer he can run between his bunkers, the more you will lose all of you, all those who are related to Russia ”.
Putin, a fan of historical parallels, invoked the specter of the Russian Civil War, which broke out in 1917 while the country was fighting World War I, on Saturday morning, an indication of how seriously he seemed to take the Prigozhin threat.
But perhaps Putin should look to the failed August 1991 coup against then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Back then, Communist Party hardliners, furious at Gorbachev’s attempts to push through reforms, arrested the leader at his Crimean dacha and rolled their tanks into Moscow. Like the failed Prigozhin Mutiny, the 1991 August coup was short-lived: it lasted only three days. But the fallout was catastrophic for the Soviet Union: it led to a loss of faith in the communist regime and, by December 1991, the USSR was no more.
Wagner’s role in Putin’s war
Wagner mercenaries played a major role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As the unofficial arm of the Kremlin’s military, recruited from Russia’s prisons and back alleys, they were among Putin’s most expendable men.
A force with a capacity for horrendous ferocity – including executing deserters with clubs – Prigozhin’s men were thrown into the most brutal of battles – cutouts in the famed Russian military meat grinder.
Last winter, when Russian forces were exhausted and demoralized in the wake of a surging Ukrainian counter-offensive that retook Kharkiv and Kherson, Moscow used Prigozhin’s mercenaries to fill gaps in the battlefront and give its regular troops breathing space.
While Wagner mercenaries held the line through the winter, Russia was able to replenish its dwindling stocks of weapons and raise and train a fresh wave of conscripts to be thrown into the trenches.
Prigozhin’s forces were also instrumental in the battle for Bakhmut, the strategic city in eastern Ukraine that saw some of the heaviest fighting and biggest Russian losses of the war.
What happens to Prigozhin’s forces now?
On Sunday, Prigozhin’s mercenaries began withdrawing from the southern Russian region of Voronezh, which sits along a highway that the Wagner Group wanted to use to march on Moscow, and from Rostov-on-Don, the Russian city near the Ukrainian border. occupied by Sabato Wagner.
The question is: where will they go now?
With Prigozhin out of the way (and probably avoiding everything windows, door handles, teacups AND umbrellas during his alleged exile in Belarus), the Wagner mercenaries – 25,000 of them, if Prigozhin is to be believed – will go back to where they came from or sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry.
Indeed, Russian military bloggers have speculated that Prigozhin launched his offensive against the country’s military leadership in response to the Kremlin trying to defeat him by integrating his mercenaries into the army. (Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu earlier this month tidy all « volunteer detachments » at the front in the Ukrainian war to sign contracts with the ministry by July 1 – which Prigozhin promised to oppose.)
But Wagner mercenaries signing contracts might not make much of a difference on the battlefield now.
« Wagner bought the Russian army time over the winter, » said Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army military strategist and major general. « But with or without Wagner, it will be difficult for Russia to win this war, » he added.
« As we’re seeing now, there’s a big difference in willingness between the two sides, » Ryan said. “Ukrainians are absolutely dedicated to saving their country, they are fighting for their freedom. The Russians are somehow interested in fighting Ukraine, and somehow interested in fighting each other. »
And to what extent can Putin ever trust his new recruits, who were ready to storm Moscow under the command of Prigozhin?
« Russia just lost 25,000 troops, » said retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, a former general in US forces in Europe. said Times Radio on Sunday, referring to the Wagner mercenaries. « Each of them will be viewed with suspicion and considered unreliable. »
Putin’s humiliation is a boost for Kiev
With full-scale war in its 16th month and Putin’s forces deeply entrenched in southern and eastern Ukraine, Kiev has struggled to make any significant gains in its counter-offensive.
But Saturday’s extraordinary events gave Ukrainian forces a much-needed morale boost.
« For our soldiers, it was also very motivating, » Ukrainian MP Kira Rudik of the liberal Holos party said in an interview with Times Radio. “It’s a great proof that you can fight Russia and you can win [against] Russia and it’s very good that the world has seen it. »
Kiev forces have been striking Russian positions in southern and eastern Ukraine, looking for a way to cross the Kremlin line, as they did last year.
Prigozhin’s antics forced the Kremlin to tighten control of Russian territory rather than direct the full might of its military against Ukraine. This provides an opening for Kiev: if he can get the equipment, he says he needs to push through Russia’s positions.
Zelenskyy, in Saturday’s speech, renewed his appeal to the West to supply more weapons to Ukraine, to allow the country to take advantage of Putin’s moment of weakness. « Now is the time to supply all the necessary weapons, » Zelenskyy said, checking the names of US-made F-16 fighter jets and tactical missile systems.
« If the Ukrainians are able to exploit this, particularly in the east near Bakhmut, they just need a breakthrough at the end of the day, » said Ryan, the military strategist. “If they break through the Russian defenses and keep that penetration open, the Russians are in big trouble: they are very fragile. Ukrainians only have to do it once. And from then on the Russians will be chasing their tails.”
Threatening signal for Putin
Prigozhin’s macho-man missives railing against Russia’s military leadership have tapped into the general feeling among his countrymen that the « special military operation » is not going as smoothly as it should, given what they see as Ukraine’s military inferiority.
While the warlord stopped short of directly blaming Putin for Russia’s poor battlefield performance, he insinuated in his flurry of Telegram posts late Friday and early Saturday that the Russian president was been at least manipulated by those in his circle.
Prigozhin’s implication: that Putin is out of touch, weak, easily duped – the polar opposite of the image the strongman leader has carefully cultivated in his decades at Russia’s helm.
And Prigozhin’s attacks seem to have found a receptive audience.
The scenes in Rostov, where crowds of Russians greeted the Wagner mercenaries with chanting and cheers, revealed the extent to which support is waning for members of Putin’s inner sanctum, especially his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his war-in-command general. Ukraine, General Valery Gerasimov.
Perhaps even more revealing was that of Wagner superstar exit as his tanks and heavily armed forces withdrew from Rostov. The crowd cheered, booed, waved Wagner flags and shouted “Great job! Great job! » and « Wagner! Wagner! » -a few hours after Putin labeled Prigozhin and his followers as traitors.
« I think what the world has seen is that Putin is not omnipotent, » said Rudik, the Ukrainian lawmaker. Referring to the deal negotiated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko under which Prigozhin would leave for Belarus in exchange for being spared prosecution by Russia, he said: « I think the situation was very, very similar to the Wizard of Oz, where Prigozhin was looking for the great and terrible Putin and it turned out that he was just a man who was really scared and had to have a leader of another country, the so-called president Lukashenko, talk to him to bring him to his senses.
« What happened [Saturday] it wasn’t the end,” Rudik added. “It was the beginning, to show that Putin doesn’t control the country and that he is not invincible, and that if you have enough strength you can try to fight him. And I think many nationalist movements in Russia were waiting for the opportunity. »