Without Russia’s single most effective fighting force, Putin will have to rely wholly on the country’s weakened military.

The U.S. and allies have major concerns about the consequences of instability in Russia, even as the chaos raises opportunities to strengthen Ukraine’s position diplomatically and militarily.

There are any number of aftereffects to look for in the fallout from the weekend mutiny attempt launched by the head of the mercenary Wagner Group against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.  

They include changes to Russia’s military footprint in Ukraine, impacts on Wagner’s operations in Africa and the Middle East, and potential shifts in position from China and other countries that have maintained ties with Moscow. 

“We’re going to keep assessing the fallout of this weekend’s events and the implications for Russia and Ukraine,” President Biden said Monday in remarks from the White House.

“But it’s still too early to reach a definitive conclusion about where this is going,” President Biden said. “The ultimate outcome of all this remains to be seen.”

U.S. officials have said they are watching “very carefully” for any movements related to Russia’s nuclear weapons that would demand a reaction from America and its allies, while offering public assurances that there is no immediate crisis. 

“We haven’t seen any change in Russia’s nuclear posture. There hasn’t been any change in ours. But it’s something that we’re going to watch very, very carefully,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Putin has seemed to stymie the immediate threat posed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who retreated Sunday from driving an armored column of his Wagner fighters toward Moscow after the intervention of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. 

Prigozhin, considered a close ally of Putin, had said he was launching a coup against Russian military generals he accused of undermining and targeting his fighting groups. He put out a video denouncing Russia’s war in Ukraine, saying it was launched on blatant lies.

‘Military power is cracking’

The U.S., allies, and Ukrainian officials describe the extraordinary events that played out between Friday and Sunday as one of the starkest examples of Putin’s failure in his 16-month war of aggression in Ukraine, showing the Russian leader’s weakness to control the forces fighting his war.

“The most important conclusion is that the war against Ukraine launched by Putin, and the monster that Putin created with Wagner, the monster is biting him now,” European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell told reporters Monday.

“The monster is acting against his creator. The political system is showing its fragilities and the military power is cracking. So, this is an important consequence of the war in Ukraine.”

Peter Schroeder, who served as a senior intelligence official in both the Trump and Biden administrations focused on Russia and Ukraine, said an important takeaway from the chaos in Russia is that it undermines Moscow’s strategy to wear down Ukrainian resolve and that of its supporters in a grinding war of attrition. 

“It does sort of suggest that it’s Russia where the cracks are emerging and time isn’t necessarily on their side,” he said.  

“Ukrainians have been very good at the, sort of, information game so far. So I think that’s something that they can really flip on its head, the idea that time is not on Russia’s side.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday night, “The longer Russian aggression lasts, the more degradation it causes in Russia itself. One of the manifestations of this degradation is that Russian aggression is gradually returning to its home harbor.” 

Will Putin listen to Prigozhin?

Prigozhin’s Wagner company is a key fighting group in Russia’s war in Ukraine, with the U.S. estimating that 50,000 Wagner fighters were either killed or injured on the frontline.

Schroeder, now a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, said one potential risk for Ukraine and its supporters is if Putin actually takes Prigozhin’s criticisms seriously and reevaluates Russia’s strategy in its war against Ukraine. 

“The risk is that the Russians find a way to, frankly, prosecute the war more effectively,” he said, and pointed to watching whether Putin retains Sergei Shoigu as the defense minister and Vitaly Gerasimov as the chief of general staff — the two Russian officials whom Prigozhin had singled out for his rage. 

The Russian Defense Ministry published a video Monday of Shoigu surveying battlefield operations, a signal that he still has Putin’s confidence. 

Schroeder said if Putin doesn’t change his military leadership, “that sort of suggests he’s not going to make any changes to their approach, which is good for the Ukrainians, I think.” 

The fate of Prigozhin and Wagner as a company are so far unknown. Putin has said that Prigozhin and Wagner troops that participated in the rebellion can take exile in Belarus. 

While tens of thousands of Wagner forces were fighting on the frontlines of Ukraine, the private military company was also involved in information warfare, interfering in elections including in the U.S. The company is a military-for-hire force carrying out heinous atrocities against civilians in African countries and plundering their natural resources for financial gain.

The Biden administration labeled it as a transnational criminal organization in January. 

“It’s just too soon to know after the weekend events where Wagner goes as an entity, or where Mr. Prigozhin goes in terms of his leadership,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday.

Opportunities for US, allies

Evelyn Farkas, executive director of the McCain Institute, said that even as Putin remains in power, his weakened position provides a chance for the U.S. to exercise influence in areas where Russia is sowing instability globally.

“The weakness of the Russian government and Wagner are two things that open up opportunities for more positive developments,” she said. 

This includes in Georgia, where the Russian government is exerting influence over the government in Tbilisi to turn away from the West and its European aspirations. Russia also maintains a military occupation in the Georgian territory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 

Moscow’s focus inward will also leave less time for it to exert influence in efforts to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan — with the State Department hosting foreign ministers of both those countries in Washington this week for peace talks. 

Farkas said she’s also going to be watching closely if Wagner troops operating in Syria and in African nations are diminished.

“I would be looking at their posture,” she said. “Are they being paid? Are they staying in place? Who are they reporting to?” 

But NATO member countries bordering Russia and Belarus raised concern that moving Prigozhin to a country effectively under Russian control escalates threats against them; they called for reinforcing defenses in the Baltics. 

“The Alliance is as strong as its most exposed spots are, and NATO’s eastern flank is exactly that spot,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said Monday following a major military exercise among NATO forces in the country. 

Zelenskyy is looking for NATO members to offer Kyiv concrete security guarantees and a commitment to bringing Ukraine into NATO during the leaders-level summit next month in Vilnius, Lithuania. 

On Sunday night, he said he expects to hear “strong content” in Vilnius and pointed to Putin’s faltering state. 

Biden administration officials have said they are focused on laying the foundations for longer-term security support to Ukraine and strengthening its position to engage with NATO, while holding back from committing fully to bringing Kyiv into the alliance. 

The president is keeping updated on the situation in Russia on an hour-by-hour basis, Kirby said from the podium Monday, “sharing our perspectives with allies and partners,” and that is going to continue. 

U.S. officials would not comment on whether contact had been made with China, or with Chinese President Xi Jinping, one of Putin’s most prominent international backers.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Monday in a press briefing that Beijing officials have “stayed in close and sound communication at various levels” with Russia.

“This is Russia’s internal affair. China supports Russia in maintaining national stability and achieving development and prosperity,” Mao said.

William Taylor, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and is vice president of the Europe and Russia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the best course of action for the U.S. and partner countries is to closely watch as events unfold and reinforce that they are uninvolved in the internal competition playing out.  

“We want to be clear that we don’t get involved, we don’t have a preference. This is something for the Russians to figure out. We’ll deal with the Russian threat whatever it is,” he said.

“When your adversaries are tearing themselves apart, your best tactic is to keep quiet, let them do it.” 

Source: https://thehill.com/policy/international/4068809-russia-wagner-chaos-uncertainty-opportunities-ukraine/

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