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Wagner rift adds to Russian weaknesses amid Ukraine’s counteroffensive

As the fratricidal spat between Wagner Group chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin and Russia’s top military brass spilled over into open conflict over the weekend — sparking a march toward Moscow, an apparent mutiny of the mercenaries and a subsequent exile to Belarus — the war in Ukraine went on pretty much as usual.

At least five people were killed Saturday when debris from a Russian missile hit a building in Kyiv. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s counteroffensive continued in the south, where Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Monday that Ukraine had liberated another 6.5 square miles of land from Russian occupation.

But while the chaos engulfing Wagner has not had an immediate battlefield impact on Ukraine’s counteroffensive — the mercenary group left its only front-line engagements around Bakhmut more than a month ago and by last week was not deeply involved in Russia’s defenses — analysts say that in the longer term, the dispute can only hurt Russia.

Defiant Prigozhin says Wagner mercenaries to operate from Belarus

“The Russian army lost a large and combat-ready unit the size of about a brigade,” Ian Matveev, a Russian military analyst, wrote in a message. “Of course it’ll be important in near future fights in the south.”

A senior Ukrainian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, said Kyiv was waiting to see if the recent chaos in Russia would have an effect on the battlefield. “I expect there will be,” he said, but did not provide further details. “We will see.”

Prigozhin claimed in an audio file released Monday that his troops had rebelled because the majority did not want to be subsumed into the regular Russian military, as had been ordered to occur by July 1. The Russian Defense Ministry announced last month that it would require all soldiers fighting in Ukraine to be contractually bound to it.

Speaking from an unknown location, Prigozhin suggested that the failures of Russia’s military leadership had prompted doubts among his soldiers. “Everyone knows very well from the current situation and their experience during the operation that [Wagner troops joining the Russian military] will lead to a complete loss of combat capability,” he said.

What is the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary outfit led by Yevgeniy Prigozhin?

It’s just the latest example of the Wagner chief’s dim view of Russia’s military leaders. Before he accused them of striking his troops in Ukraine last week, which he said Monday had killed 30 of his men, Prigozhin had expanded his public criticisms of the Defense Ministry to include not only operational failures but also an accusation that its leaders had misled Russian President Vladimir Putin on the necessity of the war and that they did so for personal gain.

“Prigozhin expressed concerns regarding the goals of the ‘special military operation’ and the conduct of operations,” said Marie Dumoulin, director of the wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “These concerns are probably shared in parts of the Russian military.”

Ukraine began its long-awaited counteroffensive this month, with much of the fighting concentrated in the southern regions of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, where Kyiv hopes to push through southern lines to cut off the “land bridge” that connects mainland Russia to the occupied Crimean Peninsula. Progress has been slow, however, with Ukrainian forces running into lines of trenches, minefields and troops who have had months to prepare.

One thing they are not finding, however, is troops from Wagner. Over the past year, the mercenary group had played a key role in only one place: the battle for the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk.

Though Prigozhin’s high praise for his fighters was exaggerated — in his audio message on Monday, he called them “perhaps the most experienced and combat-ready unit in Russia, and possibly in the world” — the group had earned a reputation as unorthodox but often successful.

Wagner fighters abandoned some of the standard tactics used by the Russian military, undertaking riskier measures and withstanding much heavier losses than would ordinarily be considered acceptable. That last factor appeared to be a result of Prigozhin’s personal recruitment of Russian prisoners to fill up his ranks.

Russia advances in Bakhmut by sending waves of mercenaries to certain death

But after Prigozhin announced the capture of Bakhmut in late May, marking one of the only major territorial gains for the Kremlin since last summer, the mercenary chief said Wagner would hand over responsibility for the defense of the city to Russia’s regular military — part of the apparent spat that would later take his troops on a march to Moscow.

“They really haven’t been defensively engaged or offensively engaged for nearly a month,” said Karolina Hird, a Russia analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. “There haven’t been tactical ramifications of the armed rebellion that we’ve observed so far in Ukraine.”

Hird said Moscow’s claims over the weekend that Ukraine had used Prigozhin’s mutiny as an opportunity to launch an offensive in Bakhmut should be viewed as an “informational” tactic from the Russian military, not an accurate representation of any real change on the ground.

If any portion of Wagner’s troops, claimed by Prigozhin to number as many as 25,000, were to withdraw from Ukraine, most analysts believe it would eventually compound a major problem for Russia: a shortage of skilled fighters.

As revolt in Russia subsides, U.S. and allies brace for what comes next

The British Defense Ministry has estimated that Russia currently has about 200,000 troops in Ukraine, roughly the same number it had at the start of the war, despite heavy losses. But with many of its best fighters having already been killed and replaced by conscripts or, as pioneered by Wagner, convicts, there are doubts that Russia has enough troops to hold the full 600 miles of fortified front lines.

“[Wagner’s troops are] not the best soldiers by any means, but there are thousands of them, and Russia barely has enough troops to hold the line it is currently holding,” said James Rand, an analyst with the private intelligence firm Janes.

Even if not sent to the front line, Wagner’s troops could have been used as reserves to fight any Ukrainian forces who make it through the first line of fortifications, or as a counteroffensive force. “There’s very little Russian reserve that isn’t actively on line somewhere, which means that this is a very finite pool of defensive potential,” Hird said.

Wagner troops may end up remaining in Ukraine, whether joining the regular military or another private military group or volunteer unit, Matveev said. It is not clear how many of Wagner’s top troops remain loyal to Prigozhin, however, or would prefer to leave the fight in Ukraine for other opportunities. Even if many stay, Matveev added, assimilation would mean they would lose the power of Wagner’s “experience and organization.”

The Ukrainian official said it was still early for understanding the ramifications of what just unfolded. “It all happened very quickly, and there is a certain inertia in the Russian system,” he said, adding that it was unclear in what ways the Russian leadership had been weakened.

Stern reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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