A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 25, 2023

The Chaos In Russia Came At An Opportune Time For Ukraine

Anything that distracts your enemy, weakens them. Ukrainian forces have not yet made any surprise advances, but are increasing their probes to identify weaknesses which they can exploit. JL

Matthew Luxmoore and Ian Lovett report in the Wall Street Journal:

Kyiv’s military has struggled to break through Russian defenses. Now, much of the most capable Russian fighting force, the Wagner group, is in Russia after launching an armed revolt against the country’s military that has disoriented and further demoralized Russian troops. Ukraine stands to gain from the deepening divisions among Russia's military. “We don’t see troops moving out. But there has been less fire from their side, and we are moving forward.” The commander of a Ukrainian drone unit in Bakhmut posted a video of himself dipping his hand into large tubs of popcorn as he watched news on the mutiny.

The chaos unfolding in Russia comes at an opportune time for Ukraine.

Kyiv’s military has struggled for weeks to break through Russian defenses, pressing a counteroffensive along parts of the 600-mile front line in the country’s east and south.

Now, much of the most capable Russian fighting force, the Wagner paramilitary group, is in Russia after launching an armed revolt on Saturday against the country’s military that has disoriented and further demoralized Russian troops. The infighting offers Kyiv a fresh chance to advance.

“No soldier wants to die in a war that he thinks might already be lost, or be killed…when it’s almost over,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe.

Late on Saturday, Wagner said it was standing down after seizing a city in Russia’s south and coming within 140 miles of Moscow in a “march for justice” it said would restore order in the country.

Even with civil war in Russia averted, Ukraine stands to gain from the instability in Russia and the deepening divisions among its military forces. A question for its commanders is how to capitalize on the dissent and disorder in the most effective way possible.

Ukrainian soldiers and officials on Saturday said they were carefully following events in Russia, after Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said 25,000 of his fighters had taken control of the southern regional capital of Rostov and were moving north toward the capital. 

Ukrainian soldiers fired toward Russian positions on the front line in Zaporizhzhia region in Ukraine on Saturday. PHOTO: EFREM LUKATSKY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said that Ukraine had discussed scenarios like this with Western partners, expecting the long-simmering dispute between Prigozhin and the Russian military establishment eventually to turn violent.

“The appearance of these private armies,” like the one Prigozhin runs, he said, “made this inevitable.”

The seeds of Prigozhin’s insurrection were planted earlier this year in Bakhmut. For nearly 10 months, Wagner spearheaded a campaign to take the eastern Ukrainian city. While Kyiv’s forces clung to its western edge this spring, tensions between Prigozhin and Russian military officials burst into the open.

Prigozhin complained that his men were dying because the military was starving them of ammunition. He repeatedly accused Russian generals of incompetence and praised the Ukrainian military by comparison. Last month, he said Wagner had lost 20,000 fighters in Bakhmut.

Fighters of the Wagner private mercenary group were deployed in the city of Rostov-on-Don. PHOTO: STRINGER/REUTERS

Moscow, meanwhile, accused Prigozhin of capturing and torturing a Russian colonel, and the two sides skirmished as Wagner handed off control of the city to regular Russian forces early this month. Soon after the Russian military took over, it lost ground that Wagner had taken on the city’s flanks.

“Wagner was the only successful element of Russia’s invasion for a year,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister. “But unless Wagner contributes to the demise of the regime it will be eventually defeated and will stop playing its role in the invasion.”

Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said that the Russian military will be weakened by Prigozhin’s attempted insurrection. He added that Ukraine wasn’t likely to make any dramatic moves to exploit the situation right away.

“We don’t know the impact on the Russian army now in Ukraine,” he said.

Ukrainian soldiers and officials say little has changed along the 600-mile front line so far. Hanna Malyar, a Ukrainian deputy defense minister, reported a series of military offensives in the east, and the military said Krasnohorivka village in Donetsk region, which had been under Russian occupation since 2014, was recaptured. But no major territorial gains were announced.

Some Ukrainian soldiers have been told to be prepared to redeploy but haven’t been moved from current positions.

“We don’t see any troops moving out,” said one Ukrainian soldier fighting in the southern Zaporizhzhia region. “But there has been less fire from their side, and we are moving forward.” 

Ukrainian social media was upbeat on Saturday, cheering on the fight between two parts of a military force responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in Ukraine. Ukrainian troops celebrated. 

Robert Brovdi, the commander of a Ukrainian drone unit that fought against Wagner in Bakhmut and nearby Soledar, posted a video of himself dipping his hand into three large tubs of popcorn as he watched news on the mutiny in Russia. 

“We’re all watching and following,” said Oleksandr Borodin, a soldier in the Third Storm Brigade that is advancing on the flanks of Bakhmut, looking to encircle Russian forces in the city against stiff resistance. 

An officer in a Ukrainian drone unit who goes by the call sign Odysseus welcomed the infighting in Russia. 

“I wish they would kill each other,” he said. “This is very good for us.”


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