What factors contributed to the swift turnaround of the Wagner Group troops during their march on Moscow, and what does this reveal about the dynamics within the Russian military and security apparatus?
We have known for some time that there has been a disunity of military command within Russian forces operating in Ukraine. Indeed, one of the characteristics of the so-called special military operation, launched on the 24th of February is how the different regional commands were in charge of their own operations as they poured into Ukraine. So, dysfunction or disunity were already features of the full-scale invasion from the outset. With the participation of so-called private military companies like the Wagner group, that sort of disunity has become all the more obvious in part because as much as they do depend on the Ministry of Defence for ammunition supplies, logistics, and so forth, they have been operating in rather independent fashion. We see Bakhmut being a flashpoint for Wagner forces in particular.
Over the course of the last several months Prigozhin, the founder and head of the Wagner group, charged that the Ministry of Defence was incompetent, inept, and more problematically, from his perspective, had withheld the provision of ammunition and munitions to forces belonging to the Wagner group. He had been steadily crossing over various red lines in terms of his criticism of Russia’s civilian authorities. He has pointed much of the criticism towards the military leadership, in particular, defence minister, Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov. Things came to a head when he disabused Russian citizens as the official reasons for the full-scale invasion.
There was apparently an MOD-backed missile strike on Wagner’s positions in Ukraine. That precipitated the taking of the city of Rostov, which is where the southern Military District is headquartered in Russia, and then of course, the March on Moscow itself. You mentioned the very abrupt turnaround of the march of justice, as Prigozhin had called it. A march of justice, as it were, that consisted of a convoy, perhaps a battalion-sized convoy headed towards the city of Moscow did get into the oblast of Moscow, and Prigozhin, very suddenly, had announced that some sort of deal was struck in that bloc and forces would be returning to the barracks as it were.
We don’t really know why Prigozhin would take Putin’s word for anything, considering the chronic inability of Putin’s regime to abide by deals and to make honest goodwill gestures. I can’t really tell you what really went into it. What we do know, at that time, is that Prigozhin did receive certain security guarantees, how reliable and credible those were as another matter, and that Wagner forces would not necessarily be subject to criminal proceedings but may be folded into MOD force structure. But again, there was a lot of uncertainty about the nature of the security guarantees, and indeed, the relationship between the Wagner forces and the MOD. What we do know is that Prigozhin and Wagner forces seem to be moving to Belarus as part of this deal. But precisely because Wagner remains armed, and that there are serious cracks within the Russian military leadership because of this particular affair, this is an issue that’s probably far from over.
What are the potential implications of this short-lived rebellion for the stability and security of Russia?
One aim of the so-called March of Justice was to remove the particular leaders in question, namely, Shoigu and Gerasimov, who are still in power. There do seem to be credible reports that Russian general, Surovikin—nicknamed General Armageddon has been arrested and detained. He has been seen as one of the more competent, if not ruthless, Russian generals, to what extent this is true is debatable, but it does reveal the major cracks within the Russian military corps, in addition to the deep crisis that does rock Russian civil-military relations.
It is important to note that Russia does not really have a history of coups. There have been coups over the course of the last 200 or so years, but almost everyone that you can name—whether it’s the Decemberists in the early 19th century, the Kornilov Affair during the First World War, or the August 1991 coup—they’re all failures, including this one. all over failures. Russia has a strong history of civilian control of the military, and it does reveal, again, fragmentation within the Russian military.
I think that is useful for Ukraine, in part because it makes it harder for Russia to coordinate various military activities to sustain high morale. Indeed, there are credible reports that Russian troop morale is very low. These sorts of crises can only make things worse. Obviously had the March of Justice proceeded and not ended as abruptly as it did and resulted in an intensification of armed hostilities between regular Russian forces and Wagner forces, then that certainly would have been very disruptive to Russia’s ability to continue fighting in Ukraine.
Wagner forces are withdrawing from the Ukrainian military theatre of operations. That could hinder the ability of Russia to mount further offensive operations. As such, the best that Russia could have bet on is to hold on to what territory it currently controls within Ukraine itself. These Wagner forces, as much as they were made up of convicts, were still some of the more combat-credible forces that Russia had at his disposal. Leaving the picture, as it were, further empowers Ukraine to go about undertaking operations in association with its offensive operations. However complex and difficult those operations may be.
What implications does the attempted coup have for Russia’s war in Ukraine?
I’m not sure if it really was a coup. Some of the discourse that Prigozhin had used over the course of the crisis did involve a stepped-up attack on Putin’s leadership. It seemed more like a mutiny. Some people would say it was a fight between various gang elements, intended to ensure that the Wagner group would not be disarmed and folded into regular MOD forces. But, again, the episode certainly is revealing in so far as it showed the dysfunction that characterizes the Russian military leadership, the grave distrust that now exists between military leaders and political leaders. Indeed, the possible arrest of Surovikin is indicative in this regard.
It’s very easy now for Ukraine or Western partners to undertake psychological operations aimed at sowing more discord and distrust within Russia. It’s certainly more possible to undermine Russian troop morale, not least, because there really are on the back foot. In Russia itself, it looks like at least certain sectors of the frontline. Ukraine is starting to take territory, although they’re doing it perhaps a little more gradually and incrementally than what many have expected.
In general, it is good news for Ukraine. It’s a hard war. It’s very difficult for Ukraine. It’s been a very traumatic and challenging process. But this sort of dysfunction almost never goes well for the regime in question. It suggests a new phase, a terminal phase even, in Putin’s own rule of the country in that the regime will have more and more difficulties in trying to adjudicate between competing power structures, that a weakness is now perceptible amongst people like Putin, by people within Russian society or Russian elite class itself in a way that will be very disruptive to Russia’s ability to go about complex military operations in Ukraine.
Considering the volatile and unpredictable nature of the situation, what steps should the international community, including Canada and its allies, take to address the potential ramifications and maintain stability in the region?
I would certainly hope if nothing else, that European Union countries are thinking about the possibility of major refugee flows that could result from a significant conflagration happening within Russian borders. We’ve already seen Latvia, for example, tighten its visa regime to bar Russians from entering the country. I would hope to see more advanced crisis management planning in that regard. It is also an opportunity to figure out where exactly Putin’s so-called red lines really are.
This episode revealed that the ability of the Russian military to defend its own cities, let alone its own border, is under serious question—that Putin sought to deescalate by striking some sort of deal with Prigozhin, who by all accounts, committed severe treachery is significant. The most important is the ability of Ukraine to liberate the territory that is currently under Russian military occupation and to do so at the smallest cost possible—notwithstanding how difficult counter-offensive operations truly are.
This new information about the inability of the Russian military to conduct basic tasks, in addition to the Russian political leadership being in severe crisis, should allow us to overcome what hesitation we have to provide supplies and military gear that would allow Ukraine to go about the kind of offensive operations necessary to liberate those territories that have been under Russian occupation since at least 2020.
How Should NATO Think About Ukrainian Membership After Russia’s Coup Attempt? Is this going to influence discussions at the upcoming NATO summit?
I don’t think it will influence discussions about Ukraine’s prospective membership. With regards to NATO, I think there remains dissensus within the alliance, about whether Ukraine should be a member, ad because NATO is a consensus-based organization, comprising 31 members, it would be very difficult to achieve that degree of unanimity required. I think there have been some news reports of select countries within NATO offering some sort of bilateral guarantees or assurances to Ukraine to ensure a steady amount of political, military, and technical support.
Whether that is something that Ukraine will want or will find satisfactory, remains open to question. My suspicion is that Ukraine will probably be able to join NATO when it has the least need for NATO. That will be a time when it probably might expel Russian forces from at least a large share of its territory and the Russian military threat is such that Ukraine is able to defend that territory that does control without the significant support that comes with an alliance commitment.
With respect to the Vilnius Summit, one thing I’ll be looking to see is whether the Alliance finally decides to let go of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. This was an agreement struck in 1987, between NATO and the Russian Federation, which sought to provide some sort of roadmap for them having cooperative relations. As part of the Founding Act, there was the promise that NATO would not position substantial combat forces on the territory of those countries that would join the alliance after that date. Of course, those countries being former Warsaw Pacts and Soviet Bloc countries more generally, they’re now part of NATO.
NATO has been very faithful to the Founding Act even with the deployment of the Enhanced Foreign Presence, these aspirationally brigade-sized forces positioned in Poland, the Baltic countries, and various other countries on the alliance’s so-called Eastern flank. Because of the Founding Act, the numbers have been circumscribed and more importantly, the forces deployed forward in those countries have to be there on a rotational basis. They cannot be there permanently. However, Germany expressed its willingness to position a permanent-like brigade in Lithuania, where Germany is the framework nation for the local enhanced forward presence.
That suggests that even the Germans, who have been supportive of the Founding Act for a long time, are now moving away from that particular position. So, I’d be very interested to see whether the alliance finally determined that the Founding Act is no more in light of the security environment. That would allow the enhanced forward presence to take on a permanent character rather than the rotational character that it has.
There are benefits to having rotational forces, but permanent forces have more reassurance value to soldiers and the families of those soldiers, who prefer permanency over rotational deployments. The costs are lesser as a matter of fact, and it’s actually easier on the host nation forces themselves because they don’t have to keep training in various rigorous certified occasion processes over a four-to-six-month period.
Just getting away from the NATO Russia Founding Act would be a very positive move, that would rebound to the security of the Alliance. I hope that Germany’s recent announcement about the permanent-like brigade in Lithuania is a suggestion that such a disavowal will indeed take place at the Vilnius Summit.