When Yevgeny Prigozhin turned his back on Russia’s war to attack his own military leaders in an armed revolt and march on Moscow, many Ukrainians described feelings of disbelief and giddiness.
However, within a day, the revolt suddenly ended and only their disbelief remained.
The sudden change of the mercenary leader and the announcement of a deal with the Kremlin dashed Ukrainian hopes of an insurrection to overthrow the government. While many in Ukraine believed that Russia was in the midst of a political and military turmoil that would surely have hurt President Vladimir Putin and his government, the relentless, existential war remained in the spotlight.
As Prigozhin, who leads the Wagner mercenary group, advanced on Moscow on Saturday, more than 50 rockets were fired into Ukraine, including one that hit an apartment complex in Kiev, killing several civilians, according to Ukrainian officials. At the same time, Ukrainian forces defeated a series of Russian offensives in the east of the country.
«Of course, whenever an opportunity arises and exposes a vulnerability of the enemy, that opportunity will be used,» Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, said from Kiev. “But I don’t think it’s useful for us to see yesterday’s events as a one-time opportunity for nothing. For us, it is important to stay focused on our military objectives.”
Ukrainian officials said they saw these recent events in Russia as a distraction. The country needed to remain focused on its counteroffensive, though some admitted to hoping the West might see this as an opportunity to put more pressure on Moscow by providing more weapons more quickly and backing Ukraine’s bid to join NATO next month.
Whatever «the real purpose of this charade» may be, Ukraine remains focused on its military plans. It is the only clear path for Ukraine to end the war, Sak said.
The former British army chief advised Ukrainian officials to take advantage of the disarray and continue «investigating attacks along the Russian defensive line» and finding out where to deploy highly-skilled and Western-trained attack brigades.
“This is a moment of opportunity for Ukrainians”, General Richard Dannatt told Sky Newsalthough he warned that kyiv should monitor its northern flank and Prigozhin’s activity in Belarus.
The Ukrainian army seemed to take advantage of the momentary turmoil created by Prigozhin’s efforts. Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister, announced a multiple attack near Bakhmut, the city that the Wagner mercenary group had helped capture at the cost of thousands of lives.
Prigozhin rocked the Russian establishment when he called Russia’s stated reasons for the invasion «lies» by military and government leaders.
But then Putin’s former right-hand man suddenly announced the end of Wagner’s march on Saturday. Russia said that he would be exiled to Belarus and that his mercenaries would be transferred under the command of the army.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the dramatic events benefited Ukraine.
Ukraine «keeps moving forward with a counteroffensive,» he said Sunday on NBC’s «Meet the Press.» “These are early days, but they haven’t had what they need to be successful. It’s going to play out for weeks and even months, but this just creates another problem for Putin.»
Wagner seized Russian cities that had become key to the Kremlin’s resupply efforts. The first city the fighters invaded, Rostov-on-Don, is home to the headquarters of the Russian army’s southern command, the nerve center of the invasion of Ukraine and essential for supply, command and logistics. It is along the route of the Russian forces to travel to the Donbas region that has become the center of the conflict of the war. That it fell so fast should make Russian military leaders uneasy.
Ryan O’Leary, an American serving as a junior sergeant in the Ukrainian army, said he and his colleagues found the initial revolt «glorious» and expected Rostov-on-Don to fall quickly and damage Russia’s resupply and capabilities. in the air.
Shortly after Prigozhin’s withdrawal, O’Leary said he still hopes the situation will benefit his unit on the front lines in the coming days and weeks, especially if Russia struggles to bring in supplies to bolster its front lines and its officers have to Discover loyalties. of Wagner fighters now under the command of the military.
Because of this, more supply and leadership issues will come, O’Leary said, «It’s just a matter of where and how long it takes to kick in.»
It is unclear what implications this deal might have for the Russian military leadership whom Prigozhin has publicly criticized, particularly Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov, and how it might affect the war.
The fact that Putin has sided with his military leadership will likely put pressure on them for quick results on the battlefield, although doing so amid recent public infighting while also accommodating Wagner’s fighters could prove a challenge as Ukraine continues to press.
«Prigozhin has been criticizing those two for months, but Putin keeps them in their place,» said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. «It makes Putin even more personally responsible for the conduct of the war.»
Achieving a quick battlefield victory will be challenging amid the turmoil, said Ukraine’s former Deputy Defense Minister Leonid Polyakov, who now works for a Kiev-based think tank advising President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Prigozhin’s revolt could disorient Russian soldiers, from officers to officers, and have a drastic impact on their motivation, loyalty and interests, he said.
«It is very likely that it will have a positive effect on (the) Ukrainian counteroffensive,» he said.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who led US Central Command before retiring last year, agreed that this was a time for Ukraine to go all out and take advantage of the chaos. He said it was a tactical opportunity for Ukrainian soldiers on the ground. Wagner’s fighters will realign under Russia’s military leadership and mass confusion could ensue.
It was also an illustration of Putin’s weakness, the retired general said, which should be seen as a major strategic event for Ukrainian military leaders to consider.
«It is weaker today than it was 72 hours ago because the key to Putin’s survival is absolute and relentless control,» McKenzie said Sunday. «That myth has been punctured and you have that mess on top, which I think makes it weak, vulnerable and, I would add, even more dangerous.»
That is why this moment may not be only good news for Ukraine.
The main concern shared by several former military and diplomatic officials is that Putin could be pressured to show strength to counter this moment of weakness. That once again raises the specter that the Russian president could choose to use a tactical nuclear weapon to quell Ukraine’s counteroffensive and bolster the strongman image he has developed since he first came to power in 1999.
Fears that Putin could choose to use such a weapon were raised again when he announced in early June that he would deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus next month.
“The story of Putin and the Russian doctrine or philosophy is escalation to de-escalation,” McKenzie said. “It has run out of tools to do it in a non-nuclear way. So now, you have to start taking a look at the things that could have irreparable consequences.”