The Wagner Group rebellion is expected to have a harmful ripple effect across Russia’s armed forces as the Kremlin works to weed out supporters of the attempted insurrection, with internal divisions and strife likely to weaken fighting capabilities.
Shakeups in Russia’s military command could further impact the leadership overseeing the war in Ukraine, analysts say, while Russian soldiers already struggling with a morale issue are now exposed to political infighting and questions about loyalty.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to adopt the hardline position on fighting the war in Ukraine backed by Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and his supporters, which includes a more aggressive push on the battlefield and committing more resources.
Putin’s crackdown across the military is demanding loyalty and suppressing dissent as the Russian leader seeks to repair his image. But Putin’s aggressive reshaping of the military could alienate and divide his troops, as it’s unclear how much support Prigozhin had across the ranks.
The short-lived uprising last weekend saw Prigozhin lead thousands of Wagner fighters to take a city with a major military base in Rostov-on-Don, where Prigozhin was seen conversing with military leaders. Wagner then marched on Moscow with little resistance before a deal was reached to scuttle the rebellion and provide safety guarantees to the mercenary chief.
With questions mounting over which generals may have supported Prigozhin, Putin has mobilized investigative agents to interview hundreds of Russian soldiers from the top on down in what appears to be a test of loyalty.
Amid the scramble, Gen. Sergey Surovikin, who has historically close ties to Prigozhin, was reportedly detained by Russian authorities. Surovikin heads Russia’s aerospace forces, a crucial part of Moscow’s war machine.
Alexander Downes, the co-director at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University, said Putin is “paranoid” and “not sure how many people are involved” in the mutiny, which he indicated is a good sign for Ukraine.
“Anytime your opponent starts to rip itself apart from the inside, that’s a good thing for you,” Downes said. “Because it’s less effort that they can spend on fighting you.”
Whether Surovikin is ousted from power or not, Downes expects Putin to start removing capable officers from the command structure, which he said would have a trickle-down effect in the military.
“It’s certainly not going to be good to have chaos in your high command,” he added.
After the uprising, expectations that Ukraine could quickly capitalize on the chaos turned out to be false hopes. The Wagner rebellion has not had an immediate impact on the battlefield, where Ukraine is strenuously pushing ahead with its counteroffensive launched in June.
Ukrainians are making slow progress as forces look for weak spots in the heavily fortified Russian defenses; there has been no significant breakthrough. Wagner fighters had retreated from the frontline before last weekend and the rebellion did not force the withdrawal of any conventional Russian troops on the frontline.
Yet it’s clear that in the aftermath of the rebellion, how Ukraine’s counteroffensive unfolds in the coming months will have a profound impact on Russia’s longer-term strategy and combat effectiveness.
Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, tweeted that the “success or failure of Ukraine’s counteroffensive could be a very significant factor” for Russia’s military.
“If the Russian military holds, I think it will bolster Shoigu and Gerasimov’s position,” Lee wrote in a thread this week, referring to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s General Staff who is overseeing the war in Ukraine. “If Ukraine achieves significant gains and the Russian military performs poorly, it could strengthen Prigozhin’s position (Wagner would be more vital), and exacerbate internal tensions.”
Prigozhin is exiled in Belarus and his fighters may be integrated into the regular armed forces or broken up into other private military companies. The Wagner chief is likely to lose his power and influence.
But Prigozhin’s frequent criticisms of Russian command — namely Shoigu and Gerasimov — created friction between supporters of his messaging and those more loyal to the Kremlin.
Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder declined to speak on specific outcomes of the internal situation in Russia, but said the “facts were there for all of us to see.”
“This is an issue that Russia obviously needs to address internally,” Ryder said at a Tuesday briefing.
For now, the internal strife is rippling across the political and information space in Russia rather than taking a direct and immediate toll across Russian units on the battlefield, according to Karolina Hird, a Russia analyst with the Institute for the Study of War.
Hird emphasized the ease with which Prigozhin’s troops marched through Russia and said she was watching more closely a pro-Wagner faction and an anti-Wagner faction “crystallizing” within the security forces tasked with defending Russia.
“It really exposed cracks and shortcomings in the vaunted internal security apparatus, which is directly questioning the stability of what is meant to be protecting the Kremlin, protecting Putin’s regime,” she said.
In the wake of the rebellion, troop morale will face yet another test — already one of the biggest challenges for Russia’s combat command.
Russia mobilized 300,000 reservists last year and ordered up another semi-annual round of about 147,000 conscripts this spring. Moscow also passed a new law cracking down on Russians fleeing drafts by sending out electronic notifications to supplement mail orders.
Western analysts say morale continues to be a pressing issue for Moscow, as some soldiers question why they are in Ukraine. Prigozhin likely intensified that issue.
Ahead of his resistance, the mercenary leader released a video that accused Moscow of lying about the war in Ukraine, calling into question the Kremlin’s justifications.
When asked if support for the war was slipping in Russia, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the mobilization decree last year and Prigozhin’s highly public criticisms presented some evidence of declining support.
“There are some indicators,” Milley said at the National Press Club on Friday, but “I wouldn’t say they are definitive or conclusive or it’s going to result in some outcome or another.”
Peter Dickinson, the editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert service, said Prigozhin’s statements “will inevitably undermine fighting spirit among Russian troops and cause many to question exactly what they are fighting for in Ukraine.”
“This has long been an issue for the Russian authorities, who have struggled to articulate their war aims,” he wrote in an opinion piece. “The short-lived Wagner mutiny has also exposed deep divides within Russia’s military and security establishment that indicate remarkably low levels of loyalty to the Putin regime.”
It’s still possible that Putin rights the ship and gets the military and security forces to fall back in line. Russian military bloggers, many of whom had echoed Prigozhin’s constant criticisms of failures in the war and his stance to be more aggressive in Ukraine, have largely aligned against the Wagner chief and condemned him following the rebellion, according to their posts.
Yannis Stivachtis, the director of Virginia Tech’s Center for European Union, Transatlantic and Trans-European Space Studies, also dismissed the chatter of Putin’s regime collapsing or the military crumbling, at least because of Prigozhin.
Stivachtis said the Russian leader remains strongly entrenched in power and that, generally, Russians strive to be loyal to the nation.
“In Russia, you have to do something for the motherland,” he told The Hill. “The Russians never fight for politics [and] they will never sacrifice their military strategy for politics.”
Source: The Hill