A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 26, 2023

Why Doubling Down On Ukraine Invasion Would Be Russia's Worst Option

If it accomplished anything at all, the Wagner mutiny reinforced the weaknesses of the Russian military. Logistics, intelligence, training and leadership are all suspect. 

Doubling down on the Ukraine invasion will simply add to the catalogue of  Russian institutional failures. While Putin's ego and understandably enhanced fear of a coup may prevent him from finding a way to withdraw, that may be his best option now, because further investment in this failed enterprise will likely lead to clan warfare among the leadership cadre as it becomes apparent no one element is that much stronger than the others. JL  

Mick Ryan reports in War In the Future:

Prigozhin’s uprising made clear the brittleness of the Russian system. While the corrupt, overly-centralised Russian state is hardly a new revelation, the past 48 hours demonstrated how incapable Russian institutions are. Many security services “stayed home” during this mutiny, with other military units joining Wagner. (And) Russian intelligence agencies failed again, performing miserably in not predicting this event. It would have been difficult for Wagner to hide logistics preparations for the operation. Internal frictions between the army and Wagner will be a distraction, drawing away elite, loyal Russian army units to defend Moscow. This provides opportunities for Ukrainian breakthroughs

When I graduated from Duntroon in 1989, a senior officer assembled the graduates and gave us some words of wisdom. His final advice was to “never march on Moscow”. While French and German armies have proven why this is a military maxim, it turns out that it is an easier proposition for Russian mercenaries.

In the past 48 hours, Yevgeny Prigozhin – the head of the Wagner mercenary group – issued multiple communications denouncing Russian military leadership and the unnecessary slaughter of his soldiers and occupied the Russian city of Rostov. Prigozhin then launched his gang on a short but epic advance on Moscow.


The social media commentariat who follow such things hung on every image and Twitter or Telegram post as helicopters were shot down, tanks rolled into city centres and Russian authorities rapidly assembled roadblocks and forces to block Prigozhin’s advance. It was therefore anti-climactic when Prigozhin issued the following statement on Saturday evening: “We came out on 23 June to the March of Justice. In a day, we walked to nearly 200 kilometres away from Moscow ... Now, the moment has come when blood may spill. That’s why, understanding the responsibility for spilling Russian blood on one of the sides, we are turning back our convoys and going back to field camps according to the plan.”


While more bloodshed has been avoided for now, the last 48 hours have contained a few revelations.


The first is that Russian intelligence agencies have failed – again. The Federal Security Service has performed miserably in not predicting this event. It would have been difficult for Wagner to hide their logistics preparations for the operation they conducted in the past 48 hours. Added to their utter failure to predict Ukrainian unity and strengths in the lead-up to this war, surely there must be a housecleaning in this abysmal institution.


Prigozhin’s uprising has also made clear the brittleness of the Russian system. While the corrupt, overly-centralised nature of the Russian state is hardly a new revelation, the past 48 hours have demonstrated how weak and incapable the Russian institutions of state are. That many security services simply “stayed home” during this mutiny, with other military units joining Wagner, indicates Russia has become a fragile state and that there is a deep unhappiness at Putin’s rule.


Perhaps the true moment when Prigozhin “crossed the Rubicon” was his video last week where he challenged the rationale for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Describing the situation in the Donbas before February 24 as benign, Prigozhin laid out an alternate reason for Putin’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. Blaming the invasion, not on NATO or Nazis, but on Russian elites is perhaps the most dangerous idea that will be a threat to Putin henceforth. His war narrative has been fatally undermined by Prigozhin.


And what of Putin? His standing is irrecoverably changed. He promised a hard crackdown when he finally emerged to speak to the Russian people, but then backed down in the wake of Prigozhin’s decision to halt the march on Moscow. The fact that the President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus had to intercede has also made Putin look weak. There is no hiding Putin’s weakness now from the Russian elite, his security services and his citizens. As such, Russia today appears far more brittle. It is almost inevitable that someone else will again exploit this weakness from within. As Russia expert Mark Galeotti has written, “When history records the downfall of the Russian president, it will say the endgame started here”.


What does this mean for the war in Ukraine?


The best outcome is that internal frictions in Russia – between the army and Wagner, between Prigozhin and the military leadership – will be a distraction for Russian leaders and that it draws away some of the elite, loyal Russian army units to defend Russian borders, and Moscow. This might then provide additional opportunities for Ukrainian breakthroughs in their current offensives.


The worst outcome is that Putin, under pressure from hardliners, doubles down on Ukraine. This could involve another round of mobilisations and stepped-up attacks on vulnerable civilians and critical infrastructure in Ukraine. Additionally, there is potential for Putin to appoint a new commander in Ukraine. As tough as the current going is for them, General Valery Gerasimov has been a relatively inept commander. The Ukrainians probably don’t want him replaced with a more competent general (if there is such a thing in Russia anymore).


The most likely outcome is somewhere in between. There will undoubtedly be some impact on Russia’s battlefield operations. At a minimum, the withdrawal of Wagner forces will leave a gap to be filled in eastern Ukraine. And the morale of Russian soldiers in the field is probably at an all-time low.


There is a surplus of uncertainty in the wake of Prigozhin’s mutiny. There will be more unpredictable outcomes from the uprising, and Ukraine’s response, in the coming days.


But one thing is certain. While the Ukrainians are making slow headway in the east and the south, there are many more bloody battles to come. The more we support them (and Australia is an appalling laggard here) the quicker they can end the slaughter in this war forced upon them by Putin and Russia’s elites.


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