How the mutiny in Russia will shape the battlefield in Ukraine
Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine war. ONE MONTH ago Yevgeny Prigozhins Wagner group had just conquered the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut after a nearly year-long battle, crawling forward by a few dozen metres a day. On June 24th Ukrainians watched with amazement, and some glee, as Mr Prigozhins forces marched on Moscow, covering 800km in a few hours and shooting down several Russian aircraft. That campaign seems to have ended less than a day after it began. But Russias war in Ukraine is unlikely to return to business as usual. Mr Prigozhins mutiny struck at the heart of the war effort. Rostov-on-Don, the city which his forces seized in the early hours of June 24th, is a central logistics and command hub for the war, though the main headquarters sits in Novocherkassk 30km to the east. It is a key route into the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, and a staging post for Russian casualties. Voronezh is similarly important for operations in the northern part of the front. Mr Prigozhin said he would not impede the war, but his conquest of the Russian armys headquarters in Rostov would have been highly disruptive. Russias air losses are thought to have included advanced electronic warfare helicopters. Ukrainians had hoped that the threat of civil war next door would play out over a longer period in their favour. A source in the Ukrainian general staff said on June 24th that he hoped Russia would be forced to redeploy its scant front-line reserves, earmarked to repel an ongoing Ukrainian counter-offensive, to deal with the crisis at home. That now looks unlikely. Initial reports suggest that Wagner forces are already moving away from Moscow, though whether they return back to field camps, as Mr Prigozhin suggested, remains to be seen. Nevertheless Ukraines army sought to take advantage of the chaos. Although there appears to have been little dramatic action in the south, where Ukrainian forces have conducted attacks since June 4th, Hanna Maliar, Ukraines deputy defence minister, announced a multi-pronged offensive in the east, including Bakhmut, claiming progress in all directions. Ukrainian forces have made particular progress near Donetsk city, taking the village of Staromykhailivka, 14km to the west. That is ironic, for Mr Prigozhin, say informed observers, might have timed his own revolt to coincide with what many in Russia thought would be a big Ukrainian push that never materialised. Yet even if Russian commanders return to their posts, the countrys brief civil war will leave a lasting imprint on the battlefield. The friction within Russias military leadership was already bad; it has become worse than ever. On June 24th Vladimir Alekseyev, the deputy head of the GRU, Russias military intelligence service, casually mocked Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of general staff, in a meeting with Mr Prigozhin in Rostov. When asked if he would hand them over, he gestured with a wave: You can take them. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russias security council and a former president, later suggested that members of Russias military elite had participated in the rebellion. Mr Prigozhins retreat appears to have been part of a deal. The Kremlin claims that the Wagner leader will be given safe passage to Belarus; troops involved in the mutiny given immunity from prosecution; and others permitted to sign formal contracts with the Russian defence ministry. But if Wagner forces do return to the field, mistrust between mercenaries and regulars will be worse than ever. If they are sidelined, despite the promise of an amnesty, Russia will lose up to 30,000 soldiers, including a battle-hardened elite of 5,000. They will find it hard to replace them. Some reports suggest that Mr Putin might also sack Mr Shoigu, who has served as defence minister for over a decade. Mr Prigozhin has punctured the Kremlins authority. His small band of forces, not much more than a brigades worth, contrived the first land-based threat to Moscow since Hitler in 1941even if it proved to be, quite literally, ephemeral. Mr Putin was counting on a long war in which the West would grow tired of arming and funding Ukraine. There is now strong evidence that the wars prolongation is also accelerating the fragmentation and decay of his regime. The mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of new recruits, without which Mr Putin cannot mount any fresh offensive, would worsen that problem. Moreover, Mr Prigozhin has also punctured Mr Putins rationale for war. In a video posted on June 23rd he rubbished Russian claims that Ukraine had bombed the Donbas region for eight years and that Ukraine and NATO intended to attack Russia. The war, he said, was in fact launched for the benefit of Russias oligarchic elite. That might prompt unsettling questions among Russias rank-and-file. Who, asks John Foreman, British defence attache in Moscow until recently, would want to fight on for a Russian regime which has shown such weakness, declaring a mutiny and then rowing back within the day?