Shortcuts / 29 June 2023

Wagner’s mutiny in Russia and what it means

All the crazy events in Russia over the past week have left the world wondering what it all means. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take a look at some of the theories on how this could play out for Russia, what it means for the war in Ukraine, and why the experts are having trouble figuring it all out.

What on earth has been going on in Russia?
Good question… Things came to a head when Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary private military company the Wagner Group, mounted a challenge against Putin and the Kremlin.

How did Russia react?
Well, what the interesting is that they didn’t meet a whole lot of resistance from locals. There were images of Wagner tanks just rolling through barricades on the way to Moscow as Russian bystanders cheer them on.

It’s not a great look for Putin…
No, it shows he and his security forces are not really ruling with the iron fist everyone thought they were – because the Russian people are not standing behind Putin.

But the rebellion was quashed, right?
Kinda… Putin gave amnesty to Prigozhin in neighbouring Belarus – which is not how he’d usually act if he was coming from a position of strength… One of the most respected Russia analysts around the globe, Professor Mark Galeotti, wrote on the weekend that “when we eventually write the histories of the end of Putin, we’ll say the endgame started here”.

Why’s that?
Because as short-lived as this uprising was, it has tarnished Putin and exposed problems that are impossible to ignore.

Such as?
There are a few things to note. The first is that Prigozhin has been very critical of Russia’s defence chiefs and their efforts in Ukraine – he’s basically told Russians their strategy is hopeless. So you can only imagine the effect his words will have on public support for the war – which is already underwhelming at best. Then there’s the fact that Russian intelligence agencies failed to see this coming and Russia’s own forces wouldn’t halt Wagner’s advance on Moscow.

What happens now?
It’s hard to predict. Retired Australian Major General and Russia observer Mick Ryan reckons the repercussions of this failed mutiny aren’t even clear yet. But it has put Putin in a tricky spot, and even though he has made a couple of addresses to the nation, there’s a pretty clear sense nothing is really back to normal.

So does all of this help Ukraine?
On the face of it, most observers would say yes. Even now that the initial threat to Putin has dissolved, it’s pretty obvious he and a lot of his top brass will be spending a lot more of their waking hours thinking about how to protect themselves – and not just about winning the war.

But on the flipside?
There’s the risk that Putin could double down on a do-whatever-it-takes strategy to actually win the war.

Because he doesn’t want to be embarrassed?
Exactly – and military experts can’t discount the possibility he could launch some sort of devastating attack on Ukraine as a display of strength. Mick Ryan says the worst outcome here is that Putin actually steps up the targeting of civilians and critical infrastructure – like the dam attack that caused catastrophic flooding.

How are things on the ground, anyway?
So Ukraine launched its counteroffensive in the last few weeks – and what we mean by that is a concerted effort to push Russia out of areas it had claimed. But while it has taken back the odd village here and there, it’s been really tough going.

Why’s that?
One New York Times journo says Russia has basically built a 15km-deep defence of minefields, as well as massive ditches and concrete barriers – so vehicles struggle to get through. And even if they do, on the other side is all the military firepower.

Yeah, no thanks…
So that’s why Ukraine is moving inch by inch – and while they are doing that they are exposed to aerial attacks in these open fields, so there are huge risks.

And a mere mutiny in Russia won’t make that any easier…
Nope. The best-case scenario for Ukraine is that the morale of Russian troops gets even worse and that the Wagner troops – who have been some of the best fighters – largely leave the fight.

But none of that is a sure bet…
It isn’t, and none of the experts reckon there’s going to be a decisive end to the war anytime soon.

How I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the Kremlin…
It would be fascinating, and actually really handy… There are so few credible primary sources with access to Putin that it’s difficult even for people who know Russia really well to understand what the next move is.

I remember the rumours last year that Putin was dying…
Yep, it seemed like there was a new story out every other month, saying he had cancer or Parkinson’s. And all sorts of reputable people were quoted on that – but none of them really knew what the truth of the matter was.

So we can’t assume he’ll be gone anytime soon?
Correct. So there were stories over the weekend about UK diplomats briefing officials to “prepare for the fall of Putin” – but it was more scenario planning than a prediction. And you’ll notice generally just how cautious world leaders are in their statements on the matter.

Like who?
Well, US President Joe Biden’s line is, “We had nothing to do with this” because he knows that it would be disastrous is there is any sense inside Russia that the West was involved in this mutiny, like Putin is trying to claim.

What’s our PM had to say?
PM Anthony Albanese said we have to be prepared to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. He announced a huge new support package, including 70 extra army vehicles – but it doesn’t include a particular request Kyiv was after.

Which is?
So Ukraine has long been running a campaign to get more of these Aussie-made light patrol military vehicles called Hawkeis – they even put up a large billboard near Canberra airport. But Defence Minister Richard Marles reckons they have too many teething problems and there are better ways Oz can help.

And what’s been the reaction to that announcement?
Ukraine’s defence minister said he was “grateful” for the support but the Coalition criticised the omission of the Hawkeis from the latest support package – leader Peter Dutton said it damages Australia’s international reputation.

It won’t be the last time we hear about those Hawkeis…
Nope, and we’ll be here to keep you across all the updates.

Squiz recommends:

The Year Putin Didn’t DieNewsweek

Understanding Ukraine’s CounteroffensiveNYTimes’ The Daily podcast

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