- Mutiny exposes Russia’s thin reserve forces
- Insurrection may not hand Kyiv sudden breakthrough
- Turmoil could deal blow to Russian troop morale
- Questions swirl, Kyiv exults over Russian ‘chaos’
By Tom Balmforth
KYIV, June 26 (Reuters) – An abortive mutiny in Russia has shown the risks the Kremlin faces from a long, grinding conflict in Ukraine even though it has not handed Kyiv an immediate breakthrough on the battlefield.
Many questions still swirl after Russian mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner forces returned to base after Friday’s mutiny, which was called off the following day under a deal brokered by the president of Belarus.
But current and former officials in Kyiv say the mutiny offered a startling glimpse into the strain the Russian political system is under. It revealed that Russian reserve forces were so thin they struggled to respond to the threat.
“I think clearly they’re not in a safe space regarding the endless continuation of the war,” Andriy Zagorodniuk, Ukraine’s defence minister from 2019 to 2020, told Reuters.
“Remember the concept of the ‘forever war’ that was in the press? I think they will have to rethink that.”
A war stretching many more months and possibly years would inevitably mean more deaths and wounded on each side.
Since Putin sent his forces into Ukraine in February 2022 in what he called a “special military operation” Western officials put the death toll in the tens of thousands.
The apparent ease with which Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary forces barrelled hundreds of kilometres towards Moscow from Russia’s south facing little resistance was striking, Zagorodniuk said.
“They started to pool resources in order to stop them. We saw those resources and they weren’t substantial…Essentially, they don’t have much force left apart from what they have at the front right now,” he said.
U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said much remained unclear, including why Russian forces did not do more to halt Wagner’s advance.
The Kremlin, a day after accusing Prigozhin of leading the mutiny, said he would be allowed to move to Belarus without facing charges in return for calling off his forces from hurtling towards Moscow.
No further details of the deal are known.
Prigozhin, once personally close to Putin and whose fighters played a prominent role in Russia’s offensives in the east, had made many blistering verbal attacks on Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu and top military brass over the weeks. He had even challenged the rationale for the war.
“Any chaos behind the enemy lines works in our interests,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has said.
But Kyiv officials caution that even without its crack Wagner fighters, Russia still maintains a vast army inside Ukraine and is able to recruit more soldiers.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential official, told Reuters the turmoil would deal a blow to the morale of Russian troops.
“The additional demoralisation of Russian soldiers and additional doubts among the Russian generals, who have been demonstrably humiliated, will worsen the quality of the defence somewhat.”
The turmoil in Russia comes with no end in sight to Moscow’s 16-month-old invasion and neither side willing to make concessions.
Western-backed Ukraine is in the early phases of a long-touted counteroffensive to retake occupied land in its south and east. It says its main offensive thrust is yet to come with the bulk of its troops not committed.
Several weeks into operations, Kyiv has recaptured a string of villages, although President Voldomyr Zelenskiy has acknowledged the advance has been “slower than desired”.
A senior Central European diplomat said they saw “no immediate effect on the war” from Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny.
But the diplomat cautioned that many questions remained unanswered from the weekend’s events so it was too early to say anything about longer-term impact.
The Ukrainian military’s National Resistance Centre said Russia had flown up to two companies of its 76th Airborne Assault Division to Moscow from the front on Saturday and that it planned to keep them there for at least a week.
“It should be noted that there are no facts of a mass transfer of enemy forces, we’re talking about individual units,” it said.
Ukraine has reported no other changes to the Russian army’s posture on the battlefield where Moscow’s forces had months to prepare for a Ukrainian counterattack by digging thousands of trenches and laying minefields.
Britain’s defence ministry said on Sunday that Kyiv’s forces had reset in recent days and been undertaking major offensive operations on three main axes in the south and east.
Ukraine keeps a tight lid on information from the front.
A senior Ukrainian defence official said on Saturday that Kyiv’s forces attacked in several areas of the east, making some ground, though she gave no further details. She said heavy fighting was under way in the south.
‘RUSSIANS NOT GOING ANYWHERE’
Zelenskiy, who projects his disdain of Putin at wartime news conferences, derided the “chaos” in Russia, saying it should prompt Russian troops to return home to look after their own country.
As the turmoil unfolded, Zelenskiy said Putin looked “very afraid” and suggested he was probably in hiding.
“Today the world can see that the masters of Russia control nothing. And that means nothing. Simply complete chaos. An absence of any predictability,” he said.
The fate of Wagner is not yet clear. The mercenary group was has proven one of Russia’s most effective fighting forces and was instrumental in the capture in April of the eastern city of Bakhmut after the longest and bloodiest battles of the war.
The Kremlin has said Wagner’s fighters would not be prosecuted for the mutiny in recognition of their previous service to Russia, and if they had not taken part they could sign contracts with the Defence Ministry.
Zagorodniuk said he believed Russia would likely to merge the group into existing units inside its army and that it would cease to exist.
“That’s relatively good news. But there are still going to be lots of hostilities, there is still going to be a war: the Russians are not going anywhere,” he said.