As Vladimir Putin’s best fighter, Yevgeny Prigozhin, turns on him and then changes his mind, Ukrainian soldiers keep calm and carry on.
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KYIV, Ukraine — Much ado about nothing: Two days after starting what appeared to be a military coup against the Russian Ministry of Defense and seizing a string of cities on the way to Moscow, the head of the Wagner paramilitary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has called on his troops to stand down.
In a voice message published on Telegram on Saturday, Putin’s personal caterer turned warlord declared that he did not want to “spill Russian blood” and, after successful negotiations supposedly brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, said his men were “going back to field camps, according to the plan.”
Ukrainians had carefully followed the news that different factions of Russia’s military were turning on each other and that the Wagner mercenary group was possibly staging a coup. Their reactions varied from immense glee to cautious optimism, as many of them believed that the ongoing events and their rippling effects could cripple — or destroy entirely — the Russian war machine.
Ukrainian leaders had said this strife seemed almost inevitable in light of tensions between Russia’s military command and the Wagner group.
“We saw it coming,” says Yurii Saak, adviser to Ukraine’s minister of defense, Oleksii Reznikov, over the phone. “The Kremlin was lying on such a gigantic scale to the world, and to its own people, about everything: about the situation on the battlefield, about the losses of the Russian army, about the level of corruption within the armed forces.”
This sentiment was echoed by Olexander Scherba, Ukraine’s former ambassador to Austria and current ambassador for strategic communications.
“Everything that weakens Putin is good for us now,” he told WhoWhatWhy. “Russian stability is based on the endless credit of trust between him and the Russian people. Once this trust weakens, the support for the war will plummet.”
The Ukrainian soldiers currently facing Wagner on the front line remain cautious of the potential implications of these events. However, one of them, interviewed before the current detente between Putin and Prigozhin, had put it in rather blunt terms that could prove prescient. “If the bald dwarf and the bald Wagnerite agree, it’ll get more difficult for us,” said Anatolii, a soldier of the 68th Jaeger Brigade currently serving near the small coal mining town of Vuhledar, in eastern Ukraine. “In any case, I’ll be watching it closely.”
On Friday, Prigozhin had declared war on the Russian Ministry of Defense, claiming in a series of extraordinary audio clips that a Russian rocket attack had killed scores of his fighters and vowing to take revenge on Russia’s military leadership.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an emergency televised address on Saturday, where he described Wagner’s “armed mutiny” as a “stab in the back” to Russia, and warned that anyone who had taken up arms against the Russian military would be punished.
This, however, seemed to do little to deter Prigozhin and his men. After seizing Rostov, it increasingly looked like they were on their way to the Russian capital, where hasty roadblocks and fighting positions were reportedly put up on Saturday.
The Wagner Group has played a significant role in Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, rising to grisly prominence thanks to its brutality and utter disregard for the lives of the prisoners it had recruited in droves over the course of the last year. After months of bloody urban warfare, the group delivered to Vladimir Putin the devastated city of Bakhmut — the first Russian victory since the successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kherson and Kharkiv.
When I worked in Bakhmut in January of this year, Rem, a former car dealer from Dnipro turned drone operator, told me that Wagner’s prison conscripts were being used in suicidal assaults on Ukrainian positions, to locate the defenses and direct artillery fire upon them. The tactic — though costly — had proven to be effective. “They’re making progress, after all,” Rem had said.
In early May, Prigozhin claimed that the city had fallen to his mercenaries.
For the time being, “Dolphin,” commander of the 6th company of Ukraine’s 68th Brigade, believes that Ukrainians shouldn’t concern themselves with what is happening in Russia. “I don’t think we need to react to these events at all,” he told me in a text message. “We have our own tasks to fulfill, and these events from the point of view of the military seem like demonstrative actions that distract from something more important.”