At the time this article was written, Prigozhin had just reached an agreement to accept exile in Belarus and send his troops back to their camps. By this time his forces had taken control of the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. A city of about 1 million people that is the main headquarters and supply base for Russia’s war in Ukraine. A column of Wagner forces had advanced toward Moscow creating enough concern that the city was locked down by security forces. Some reports claim that they had advanced to about 200km south of the city!
Prigozhin himself had made a variety of statements about marching to Moscow to confront Sergei Shoigu and Valeri Gerasimov, Russia’s Defence Minister and Chief of Defence Force who Prigozhin holds responsible for Russia’s poor performance in the war. He had not personally criticised Putin, instead presenting himself as an advocate for the people of Russia by highlighting the consequences of Shoigu and Gerasimov’s incompetence and demanding their removal.
Unfortunately for him, Putin does not want advocates for the people of Russia, reacting quickly and fiercely making a powerful statement that he saw Prigozhin’s activity as armed insurrection and that it would be punished. Behind the scenes Putin was dispatching loyal ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to negotiate with Prigozhin. This activity was successful and a settlement has been negotiated with Prigozhin taking exile in Belarus and Wagner soldiers being told to return to their camps.
In the West, used to stable government this event is very dramatic. However, I think that in Russia it will have a relatively limited impact and in fact is more likely to contribute to Putin’s reputation as a strong leader. Most Russians will never see the details of what has happened, instead they will be fed the information that Putin wants them to hear. We know that Russian state TV provided limited coverage of Prigozhin’s activities aside from Putin’s address. Now that the crisis has been quickly and easily averted it will be portrayed as an example of Putin’s strength and decisive leadership. The real question is – What happens next?
Back in Ukraine, it is useful to put this situation into context by reviewing how the campaign is developing. And; it is very clear that this activity is inopportune for Russia, for three weeks Ukraine has been testing the frontline. Light-weight forces pressing the Russian defenders, drawing out their reserves and artillery. Finding out their strengths and weakness. This is a slow process and Ukraine is taking casualties. However, Ukraine has a large reserve ready for this offensive; nine brigades equipped with NATO equipment and another three with Russian equipment. Brigades normally have about 5000 soldiers, so a total force of about 60,000 able to be concentrated in one place to punch through Russian lines. So far though, Ukraine has used only about 10-20% of this force for these probing attacks.
Ukraine’s activity is aimed at bringing Russian reserves forward, either to replace soldiers killed in the frontline or to reinforce threatened areas of front. During the war Russia’s force structure has developed a hierarchy of units, some able to defend a line but only a few able to attack and re-take a section of frontline (See Dr Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds’ article – ‘Meatgrinder: Russian Tactics in the Second Year of Its Invasion of Ukraine’). This means that if Ukrainian attackers capture a section of frontline, Russia will use soldiers from its small groups of ‘assault’ infantry (coining Dr Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds’ term for elite, capable infantry units) held in reserve, to try to retake the threatened sector. The effects of this are that Russia’s reserve of assault infantry is depleted. Further, if assault infantry re-captures a section of frontline, it is too rare and valuable to use in the frontline for long periods of time so must be quickly replaced. Therefore, after retaking a section of frontline, assault infantry will be replaced by less sophisticated and capable soldiers; allowing the more useful soldiers be re-deployed. The concern is that the new infantry is unfamiliar with its flanking units, the ground and tactical situation. Essentially, that they need to learn quickly and adapt to working on a new section of the front. And; rapid adaptability is not something Russia’s frontline infantry soldiers have demonstrated in the war to-date. Adapting to new situations at work is always hard, especially when your work place is a trench that is about to be attacked by a capable enemy! Ukraine’s activity in the last three weeks is not only helping identify strengths and weakness but is forcing the Russians to move soldiers around breaking up their comfortable well-practiced defensive system.
Ukraine is also mapping out the things that we cannot see on satellite photos, like minefields and the strongest Russian electronic warfare resources. An activity that does result in casualties, the Ukrainians providing a good demonstration of sophisticated combined arms tactics as they gently probe Russia’s minefields using tanks and Mine Resistant Armoured Vehicles which although suffering damage protect their crews. This phase has also highlighted some Russian strengths because the large attacks have forced Russia to use capabilities like their effective counter-battery (anti-artillery) drones; or their very good anti-drone electronic warfare capabilities. Both capabilities that are new and would not have been identified without large probing attacks.
Last week, Ukraine appeared to pause operations. This is not unexpected its activities in the previous couple of weeks involved tough fighting with relatively limited forces. In any kind of offensive operation there is a need to regularly pause and reconstitute your force otherwise the attacker risks over-extending themselves. Often a pause precedes a change of tempo, as fresh troops are moved forwards and tired troops rotated rearwards.
Then on 23 June 2023, the Conhar Bridge was destroyed. Most likely by Storm Shadow missiles. Storm Shadow has a large shaped charged warhead designed specifically to blow holes in reinforced concrete, cutting the metal reinforcing rods and the damage to the bridge appears to have cut large clean holes in the span consistent with this type of weapon. This incident is very important because Russia’s west Zaporizhian forces near Melitopol, are predominantly supplied from Crimea using this bridge. Another route exists but it takes twice as long for trucks using it to get to the area around Melitopol that is being threatened by Ukraine. This attack is a combat indicator that Ukraine’s offensive is not blunted and that something is coming; soon. Russia will repair the Conhar bridge in a matter of weeks and it is likely that this period indicates the rough timing for a large Ukrainian operation taking advantage of the supply problems it creates.
Prigozhin’s insurrection on 24-25 June 2023, must have been a wonderful surprise for the Ukrainians providing yet another dilemma for Russia’s commanders to deal with at exactly the right time. And; creating the possibility of a complete Russian collapse. An army of 25,000 men marching capturing a city of a million people then marching unopposed 4-500km to wards Moscow is a big issue, especially as current reporting indicates that the full resources of the Russian state could not stop the column.
However, I think that Ukraine will be disappointed by the results of the insurrection. There is a great deal of hype and breathless commentary about the impact that it will have in Russia. There is no doubt that it has demonstrated weaknesses in Putin’s control of the country. However, my assessment is that Prigozhin’s actions are more likely to make Ukraine’s job harder and my reasoning for this is as follows:
- Russia does not have a free press. Russia does not have a free press providing balanced reports of the situation. Most people in Russia including many of those in the ‘elite’ will see only what Putin wants them to see. In this case, that Putin has swiftly and quickly crushed an armed insurrection. It seems likely that within Russia, Prigozhin’s actions are more likely to confirm the power of Putin and the State, rather than diminish them. This does not mean there will not be repercussions because it is highly likely that within the ruling elite the silovaki (strongmen) will be assessing the situation and questioning Putin’s capability.
- Russians see things differently. Russia is not Europe. It has a very different history and culture that impacts on how modern Russians assess events. Observers need to be careful not to interpret this activity from a liberal, democratic and modern ‘Western’ perspective. Instead, I believe there is an argument that this is not a coup in any conventional Western sense of the term.
Instead, it is battle between very powerful and entitled men, essentially warlords. Taking place in a feudal kingdom – Russia. The Czar (Putin) is infallible cannot be wrong, though his advisors can. In this interpretation, Prigozhin sees himself as the Czar’s loyal servant bringing word of bad advice to the court. Prigozhin is always careful to direct his vitriol at those below and around Putin, not at the man himself. Throughout his battles with Shoigu and Gerasimov, Prigozhin painted himself as a spokesman for the non-elite. There is a parallel with the rise of the mad monk, Rasputin, a century ago. The idea of a peasant, travelling from afar and speaking from the heart to a benevolent Czar who intervenes and fixes an injustice is an old and powerful theme in Russian literature and thought.
Unfortunately for Prigozhin, the reality is that Putin is not a benevolent Czar and Prigozhin is just a pawn in Putin’s larger game. A man that was allowed to build an army because like all dictators, Putin plays favourites in order to divide his court and make sure that no individual can get enough power to become a threat. It is telling that when the Czar indicated his displeasure Prigozhin quickly melted away.
- Prigozhin’s exile simplifies command and control. Prigozhin’s removal from the war means that Gerasimov has one less factor to consider and manage in his campaign planning. He no longer needs to negotiate with Prigozhin; or put up with his constant criticism and can get on with unifying his command. Note that General Sergey Surovikin, a Prigozhin ally was the person chosen to lead the immediate public statements opposing the insurrection a demonstration that the armed forces command structure was united against the usurper.
- Russia now has 25,000 well-trained and experienced soldiers to deploy. Although it is not confirmed at the time this article was written, it seems highly unlikely that Prigozhin’s 25,000 experienced Wagner Group soldiers will be allowed to drift to Belarus or back to Africa. Instead, they will rapidly be re-formed into units ready to get back into the fight with Ukraine. The difference being that rather than having to argue with Prigozhin about how and where they are used Gerasimov will be able to use them freely.
In summary, Prigozhin’s insurrection was very surprising and could have led to some very unexpected outcomes. However, it was quickly and efficiently managed by Putin demonstrating that he is still definitely in charge, a statement of authority that will resonate with the people of Russia. Even if it raises eyebrows in the elite. Further, removing Prigozhin simplifies Russian command in Ukraine and may reduce political influence in military decisions. It also means that Gerasimov now has a force of 25,000 experienced, ex-Wagner Group soldiers available under his command.
Essentially, Ukraine’s window of opportunity for an offensive that they were trying to create by destroying the Conhar Bridge still exists and for a few days Prigozhin’s insurrection may weaken Russian forces; but over-time Russia may come back stronger and more united. It is a risky period for Ukraine.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger