As the United States and its European allies work to make sense of last weekend’s chaos in the Kremlin, they are urging Kiev to seize a « window » of opportunity that could help its counteroffensive overcome Russian positions.
The formative response: Transatlantic allies hope, largely in silence, to defuse the immediate political crisis while quietly pushing Ukraine to strike a devastating blow against Russia on the battlefield. It’s best to strike an enemy while he’s on the ground, and Kiev would be hard-pressed to find a more wounded Russia, militarily and politically, than it is now.
In public, American and European leaders have stressed that they are preparing for any outcome, as it is not yet clear where the mercenary rebellion will lead. Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led the uprising, reemerged on Monday, saying he simply wanted to protest, not topple the Russian government, while insisting his paramilitary force would remain operational.
“It is still too early to come to a definitive conclusion about where this is going,” US President Joe Biden said on Monday afternoon. « The overall outcome of this remains to be seen. »
For now, European officials see no greater threat to the continent, though they are watching for signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 20-year rule could slip.
The Western allies attribute the relative calm to their handling of Prigozhin’s 24-hour whims.
During the fighting, top figures in the Biden administration and their European counterparts agreed on calls to remain « silent » and « neutral » on the mutiny, said three US and European officials, who like others were granted the ‘anonymity to discuss rapid events and sensitive deliberations.
At Monday’s meeting of top EU diplomats in Luxembourg, officials from several countries acted with a low-key attitude. No one wanted to give the Kremlin an opening to claim that Washington and his cronies were behind the Wagner Group targeting senior Russian military officials.
“We made it clear that we weren’t involved. We have nothing to do with it,” Biden said from the White House on Monday, delivering the transatlantic message. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled on Monday that the regime would still be investigating him. potential involvement of Western spies in the rebellion.
The larger question is how, or even if, the unprecedented momentum could turn the tide for Ukraine as its counteroffensive stalls.
The United States and some European nations have been urging Ukraine for weeks to move faster and harder on the front lines. The criticism is that Kiev has acted too cautiously, waiting for perfect weather and other factors to align before striking the Russian-dug fortifications.
Now, with Moscow’s political and military weaknesses laid bare, there is a « window » for Ukraine to break through early defensive positions, a US official said. Others in the US and Europe believe Russian troops could lay down their arms if Ukraine takes over as command-and-control problems persist from the Kremlin.
« Russia does not appear to have the available ground forces necessary to counter the multiple threats it is facing from Ukraine, which stretches over 200 kilometers [124 miles] from Bakhmut to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, » UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told the House of Commons on Monday.
Ukrainian officials say there is no intentional delay on their part. Russia’s air power, literal minefields and bad weather have hampered Kiev’s advance, they insist, admitting they wish they could move faster.
« We are still moving forward in different parts of the front line, » Yuri Sak, adviser to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, said in an interview.
“Previously it was not possible to assess the solidity of Russian defenses,” Sak added. “Only now that we’re running active probing operations do we get a better picture. The information obtained will be taken into consideration in the next stages of our offensive operations. »
Analysts have long warned that despite the training Ukrainian forces have received from Western militaries, they were unlikely to fight quite like a NATO force. Kiev is still operating on an attrition strategy despite recent exercises in combined arms operations, maneuver warfare and long-range precision fire.
During Monday’s meeting of top EU diplomats, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said now is the time to pump more artillery and missile systems into Kiev’s arsenal, impose more sanctions on Russia and speed up training of Ukrainian pilots on advanced combat aircraft.
« Together, all these steps will enable the liberation of all Ukrainian territories, » he said.
Meanwhile, European officials will keep a close eye on Russia as they consider NATO security.
« I think nobody has figured out yet what is happening in Russia – frankly I also have the feeling that the Moscow leadership has no idea what is happening in their own country, » Latvian Foreign Minister and President-elect Edgars Rinkēvičs joked in a telephone interview on Monday afternoon.
« We are prepared, as we always would be, for a range of scenarios, » British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters on Monday.
NATO allies will continue to watch if Russia begins to fall apart or if the autocrat atop the Kremlin can hold his nation together with spit and duct tape.
“The question is how Putin will now react to his public humiliation. His reaction – to save face and re-establish his authority – could very well be a further crackdown on any domestic dissent and an intensified war effort in Ukraine,” a Central European defense official said. The official added that there is no belief that Putin will reach for a nuclear option during the greatest threat to his rule in two decades.
Meanwhile, a senior Eastern European diplomat said, “we will step up monitoring, possibly our national surveillance and intelligence efforts. Additional border protection measures may be possible. We need more allied forces there. »
Alexander Ward reported from Washington. Lili Bayer reported from Brussels. Suzanne Lynch reported from Luxembourg. Cristina Gallardo reported from London.