clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What the Wagner rebellion might mean for Russia’s war in Ukraine

What happens to all those fighters? What can Ukraine do to exploit Russian weaknesses?

A Ukrainian soldier is seen holding a kitten in a former Russian soldiers’ base in the newly liberated village of Neskuchne.
Ashley Chan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

In May, Yevgeny Prigozhin declared victory for Wagner Group forces fighting in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. About a month later, those fighters were marching on Moscow, an apparent rebellion from the very people waging Vladimir Putin’s war.

Russia’s military setbacks in Ukraine spurred this political stability. But all of it overshadowed the conflict itself, which continued as the uprising unfolded. One week ago today, as Prigozhin’s confrontation escalated, Russia fired missiles on Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv. Ukraine continued its counteroffensive operations, claiming on Monday to have liberated another village in the southeast, at least the ninth since its campaign began.

The full fallout from the Wagner revolt is still unwinding, and there are still so, so many questions about what happened, and what comes next. That includes what the rebellion means for the war in Ukraine, especially as Kyiv seeks to liberate its territory in a counteroffensive in the east and the south that has, most everyone admits, been slow-going.

The Wagner Group was one of Russia’s more effective fighting forces (even if that sometimes came at high personnel costs), and it is now likely eliminated as an entity on the battlefield, at least in the form it once was. Putin’s power is also in doubt, and Prigozhin seeded the idea that the justification for this war is hollow. “That’s going to be very difficult for Putin, I think, politically, to keep people in the fold on this,” said Jason Blazakis, senior research fellow at The Soufan Center. “That’s going to have an effect on their ability to project power also in Ukraine.”

How Ukraine will try to exploit the weaknesses Prigozhin’s adventure exposed is another element of all of this. As experts said, it’s all too early to say; most everything is more speculative than certain at this point. But here are some of the big questions and things to watch for to help understand how the paramilitary’s march on Moscow might — or might not — reshape the war in Ukraine.

The biggie: What’s going to replace the Wagner Group — and its fighters — in Ukraine?

Bakhmut represented the Wagner Group’s biggest success in Ukraine. Though it took many, many months, and its strategic value was limited, it was Moscow’s most substantial victory in its otherwise sputtered-out winter offensive.

To achieve this, the Wagner Group deployed fighters in gruesome human wave attacks, which came with an astounding casualty rate. Prigozhin himself claimed that 20,000 of his fighters were killed as they tried to capture Bakhmut, including about 20 percent of the 50,000 incarcerated people recruited from Russian prisons.

Still, the Wagner Group ended up as one of Russia’s more productive and combat-ready fighting operations, at least compared to some conventional Russian forces. And, right now, it’s not clear exactly what might replace it and where those fighters will go. That could leave a gap in experience and effectiveness on the front lines that could be very difficult for Russia to replace.

Prigozhin had already been withdrawing from Bakhmut, though Ukrainian officials had previously indicated Wagner fighters were being redirected to other locations on the front. The Russian Ministry of Defense had also issued a directive requiring all contract fighters to officially sign with the military by July 1, one of the Prigozhin’s justifications for the mutiny.

Prigozhin likely achieved the opposite, accelerating that integration and the potential dismantling of the Wagner Group, at least in Ukraine. Putin has offered Wagner fighters the option to move to Belarus (with their leader, apparently) or go home (thought experts said it’s not really clear what that means), or sign with the Russian military. Russian defense officials have also said they began the transfer of heavy military equipment from the group.

If Wagner “is in fact withdrawn and broken up and integrated into the Russian military, I guess the question is: how capable and willing the participants will be to actually participate in operations or sign these contracts?” said Raphael Parens, Eurasia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).

No one knows how many out of potentially thousands of fighters will actually sign on to this deal, even if it’s exactly as it appears. As some experts pointed out, at least some are likely former Russian soldiers, who may not be keen to rejoin, and at least some may have chosen Wagner over enlisting directly.

And how efficiently and effectively these new fighters are absorbed into the Russian military is a complete wild card. “It’s going to take some time for them to integrate into — and be able to be effectively working with — their new units,” Blazakis said.

It seems likely that Russia will seek to fully dissolve these Wagner units and integrate them into regular units, the better to avoid any future Wagner-driven mutinies. But as Kateryna Stepanenko, Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, pointed out, separating them might degrade their combat effectiveness; these troops fought together, and they respect each other and have a coherent command structure. Units that stick together probably fight or defend better together. But they also might plot better together.

If Wagner forces do not ultimately sign up, Moscow loses soldiers, and that may lead to gaps and vulnerabilities along its defensive lines. And even if they are absorbed, it might not be a smooth process — which, some experts said, could make Russian defensive lines vulnerable and present Ukraine with a chance to push more aggressively on its counteroffensive.

Will Russia divert resources to try to shore up the home front?

In its day-long mutiny, Wagner seized military and defense installations in Rostov-on-Don, a critical logistics hub for Russian operations in Ukraine, and then made it fast and far — within 200 kilometers of Moscow. Meanwhile, the response of Russian security services seemed delayed and uncoordinated. (Though officials have claimed it’s because they were mostly in Moscow.) Prigozhin said he wasn’t interested in a coup, but Wagner’s advance made it seem possible.

Which is why one of the big questions will be whether Putin diverts resources or equipment to help shore up internal security services amid potential instability.

Prigozhin’s face is seen from a car window.
Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves Rostov-on-Don, Russia, one day after Wagner seized the Southern Military District headquarters there.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The head of Russia’s national guard, Rosgvardia, said this week that his forces were receiving heavy weapons and tanks. If that happens, it “indicates that the Kremlin is trying to address some regime security issues that transpired during the rebellion,” Stepanenko said. And any heavy weapons that go to take care of things at home mean they are unavailable to send to Ukraine.

How will Prigozhin’s rebellion affect Russian soldiers’ morale?

Throughout the war, reports have surfaced of low morale among Russian soldiers. They are poorly trained and equipped, then sent out into a meat grinder. Prigozhin had spent weeks accusing Russian military leaders of failing to provide ammunition and equipment to Russian troops, leading to their deaths. Then he claimed that Russia’s justification for the war — NATO encroachment, denazification — was a lie, and consequence of graft and self-enrichment among elites. Then he launched a rebellion, pushing Russia into crisis.

“If you’re fighting on the front lines in Ukraine now and you’re a Russian soldier, boy, how does this impact your morale? I mean, it’s like bedlam back in Russia itself,” said Seth G. Jones, director of the International Security Program and of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

It’s hard to know exactly what details of the rebellion will filter down to Russian troops; cellphones are banned at the front, though soldiers often get around those rules. If you are on the front lines and questioning the war, or are about to be sent to the front, Prigozhin’s rebellion may not convince these fighters of the value of the cause. Military shake-ups and tensions among leaders could trickle down.

Integration of Wagner troops into the Russian military also has the potential to shake morale. Wagner’s leader criticized the effectiveness of the conventional Russian army. At least some Wagner forces, as contractors, may also have had sweeter deals — better pay, more independence — than Russian soldiers. Now, all of a sudden, everyone is supposed to fight or defend side by side.

What can Ukraine do?

In the aftermath of Prigozhin’s rebellion, some Western officials suggested that Ukrainian forces should push more aggressively, exploiting the chaos. Although it was kind of hard to see how, exactly: After all, Russian fortifications and defenses were still in place, and the upheaval did not appear to directly transfer to the battlefield.

At least not yet. But if some of these dynamics play out — a gap left by combat-ready Wagner fighters, political turmoil, low morale, attention refocused — it could deliver Ukraine some advantages.

Ukraine has kind of been downplaying the Russian turmoil when it comes to its battlefield prospects, insisting that it is going ahead with its counteroffensive plans. Ukraine has also worried about Prigozhin’s — or Wagner’s — presence in Belarus; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has reportedly ordered Ukrainian forces to shore up defenses in the country’s north.

“After what happened, we should even be on more alert,” said Ihor Zhovkva, deputy head of the office of the president, said Friday in a discussion with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We should be on more alert to what will be happening in Belarus.”

Experts also said there are some things Ukraine is likely to try to do, or should do, to exploit Russia’s chaos. “One of them is an aggressive psychological operations campaign against Russian forces,” said Jones, of CSIS. That is, highlight the mutiny, and use it to help undermine morale, force desertions, get Russians to question the entire mission. Another, Jones said, would be to use the convulsions within Russia to recruit assets, soldiers, or sympathizers, to help bolster Ukraine’s intelligence about what’s really going on inside Russia and on the front lines.

Prigozhin’s mutiny did happen at quite a critical moment. Ukraine is under pressure to perform in this counteroffensive, to show the West it can put its advanced weapons to good use and shore up continued political support. Even though many experts said it would be a slog, and no one would know what was happening for many weeks and months, that has not stopped officials, even within Ukraine, from expressing disappointment at the progress of the operations.

Ukraine is likely to at least push for more weapons and aid now, and hope that the West will see Russia’s turmoil as another motivator to ramp up support for Kyiv economically, militarily, and politically.

How will this affect the political dimension of the war effort?

Putin’s fate in the aftermath of this mutiny is still an open question. After being relatively quiet throughout the uprising, and in the immediate aftermath, the guy is getting out and about in a way that absolutely, definitely is totally normal. Suddenly a leader who’s been notoriously isolated, especially since Covid-19, is going out and drawing smiley faces in public.

But Putin’s air of infallibility has been punctured, and no matter how he responds, it will be hard, as Blazakis said, to “put the genie back into the bottle.”

Putin in a suit at a lectern.
Vladimir Putin, at the Strong Ideas For The New Times Forum on June 29 in Moscow.
Contributor/Getty Images

Putin’s biggest threat is from the nationalistic right — the kind of pro-war, anti-Ukraine bloggers who have criticized the war effort in the past. Prigozhin’s public thrashing of Russian military leaders resonated with this set, but his most pointed criticism — that the justification of the war was bogus — may also generate broader discontent.

If Putin is worried about potential threats to his power at home, he might redirect a lot of his energy and attention there right now. Those political decisions are not disconnected from the war, though, and it may limit the room Putin has to maneuver when it comes to things like shaking up military leadership, or deciding whether to mobilize troops.

Prigozhin’s main targets of the war were its military leaders, specifically Sergei Shoigu, the minister of defense, and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, both Putin loyalists. Gerasimov has remained out of sight since the mutiny, though Shoigu appeared with Putin, including in a video of the president meeting with his national security staff.

But it will be a lot harder for Putin to replace these guys now — or blame them for any battlefield failures — without looking as if he were acceding to Prigozhin’s demands, or basically confirming Prigozhin was right. That does not mean there won’t be military shake-ups, and there are plenty of reports of purges happening with the defense ministry and military leadership. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, a senior commander who once oversaw the war and who potentially had some advance notice of Wagner’s rebellion, was reportedly detained.

Volatility, tensions, and replacements among top military brass could influence the oversight and leadership of the war. Putin, feeling threatened, may seek to close ranks with loyalists, which means fealty might trump all, and those remaining might be less likely to want to deliver any bad news to Putin. “Putin loves loyalty over competence,” Stepanenko said.

In the past, when Putin faced setbacks in Ukraine, he lashed out: declaring illegal annexations of Ukraine after Kyiv’s successful Kharkiv offensive; threatening nukes; unleashing relentless missile strikes on Ukraine’s population. Putin may attempt an escalation to show the public, and the world, that he is in control of his country, and his war.

Prigozhin’s mutiny tested the premise that Putin, and Russia, could outlast Ukraine, along with Western support and attention. An indefinite war, with an indefinite end, may have more political costs than Putin anticipated.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.