Russian armed forces and the Wagner Group’s private army had walked in fair unison so far; however, the relationship has hit the rocks, and that with a jarring momentum. It has strategic implications for the Ukrainian War and the stalemate situation there. Till the other day, Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner Group’s de facto Chief, seemed to be planning operations together, with logistics being the Russian army’s business. However, Bakhmut, the lone recent Russian victory that blew the draft back again into the Russian flag for it to flutter, has also proven to be the swamp that has sucked the relationship into a mire.
Tough battles and heavy losses test allies in every war. In this case, operations in Bakhmut have stretched the fibres too far. The initial rumblings that have now snowballed originated with Prigozhin’s statements alleging the non-provisioning of adequate ammunition for his men fighting alongside the Russians to decimate Ukrainians defending the city of Bakhmut. In a meat-grinder urban warfare scenario, the going is steeply uphill. It’s costly in terms of casualties when the opposition has to be cleared street by street. A lack of fire support can impose severe losses.
Russians, possibly trying to keep their formations supplied, prioritised the Wagnerites lower. Prigozhin released a video that attacked Moscow’s top defence officials, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov. “I’m pulling Wagner units out of Bakhmut because they’re doomed to perish senselessly in the absence of ammunition.” Wagner’s statement was not new; he had also opined against lean Russian logistics support earlier. His battle with Shoigu and Valery had been a recurring tale for months.
On 23 June, Wagnerites falling back from Ukraine entered the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and took over the regional military command. They started a march to Moscow as ordered by their chief. An alarmed Moscow vowed to punish those who betrayed Russia. Meanwhile, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov confirmed Chechen units were moving towards the “zones of tension” and would act to “preserve Russia’s units and defend its statehood.”
The President of Belarus engaged with Prigozhin to diffuse the situation. An agreement was worked out. Putin agreed to drop all charges against Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Wagnerites had also been asked to sign a contract with the Russian government, a clause that Yevgeny Prigozhin was absolutely against.
Prigozhin stopped advancing towards Moscow and instructed his men to take the road to “our field camps, in accordance with our plans.” Moscow, already looking like a battleground with machine guns in emplacements and tanks at crossings, pulled out the weapons, and the cafes opened up with Muscovites back on the streets.
If the whole issue is analysed, its implications are immense. There are ramifications not just for the Ukraine war currently delicately poised with the Ukrainian offensive not making much progress. There are also the fallouts on Russian domestic politics and Putin’s stranglehold on power. The dynamics of the issue will affect Western strategy against Russia. They could also cause a flutter in Beijing’s citadel, where another iron man has been eliminating could-be challengers in-house for some time now.
Regarding the war in Ukraine, it’s unlikely that Ukraine will be able to put together a bigger force in the immediate future than it has in its preparation for the counteroffensive, now rolled out. Ukraine has 12 brigades if Western reports are to be considered as well informed. The Russians are in hardened positional defences. The Ukrainian assaults have not made much progress as yet. No doubt, these are still early days, and the most challenging part of breaking through a well-coordinated defence line is the initial breaching of the crust, yet the momentum needs to be generated soon.
Wagner’s men are a substantial force, battle-hardened and have played a major role in the Bakhmut battle recently. Russians have a shortage of trained recruits. At this stage, if Wagner’s men follow their leader’s orders and move out of the frontline to Belarus, there could be gaps or lightly held areas that Ukraine can exploit. It would be for the Ukrainians to enhance the pace of operations and attempt a heavy breakthrough at the earliest. After that, depending on the availability of reserves with Russian commanders, the Ukrainians could attempt to race deeper while widening the breach corridor simultaneously.
The entire Wagner incident illustrates the power struggle in Kremlin. Prigozhin’s prime targets were Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. The fact that Prigozhin could take over the regional command at Rustov and his men marched towards Moscow is definitely unnerving. The fact of the matter is that the Russian tanks rolling out in Moscow are evidence of the seriousness of the situation as viewed by the powers in Kremlin. Wagner’s men were within 200 km of Moscow when he called off the march. The Russians either did not have enough forces to interdict Wagnerites on their way or decided to await the outcome of Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s mediation before initiating bloodshed. By then, Wagnerites had destroyed three helicopters and a communication aircraft.
It appears that Sergei and Gerasimov have emerged more powerful now. However, to what extent has Putin’s hold weakened is not so apparent. The presence of Prigozhin and his Wagnerites in other countries indicates an extension of Russian might. What happens to these men and their loyalties is also not known. Mercenaries are known to fight for the best offer they get, but to remain relevant, Prigozhin must keep a hold on his men. His best chance lies in the Russians facing a reverse, calling for his men and expertise.
As of now, there is no evidence of Western involvement in causing the revolt. However, totalitarian regimes do cave in, more often due to implosions aided and abetted by outside assistance. AL Arabia news of 26 June 2023 quotes Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as saying, “Russia investigating if Western spy agencies were involved in Wagner mutiny.”
There is worry about its nuclear arsenal whenever a nuclear power goes through an uncertain patch. Russia has the most extensive arsenal and has kept the systems well-guarded. As of now, Kremlin seems to be stable, and so is the aspect of safety of nuclear weapon systems. Dmitry Medvedev, the Deputy Head of Russia’s Security Council and Ex-President, was worried about the “bandits” (Wagnerites) gaining control of Russian weapons. Should the power struggle intensify, a more tenuous situation will require to be taken into account.
In the olden days, Russian Tsars were known to play influential Boyars, essentially noblemen with considerable powers, against each other. It was a way of keeping their thrones stable and the ambitions of the Boyars in check. Putin has survived in Moscow for 23 years. He should certainly know how to play the game and remain in power. As far as the Ukrainians are concerned, an opportunity, even if fleeting, has opened up. Ukrainians need to change gears and push the pace of their offensive.
Brig SK Chatterji (Retd), Editor, Bharatshakti.in