Vladimir Putin’s strongman mask is slipping — and Ukraine sees opportunity in the chaos.

Warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny over the weekend exposed Putin’s tenuous grip on the levers of power, the disunity within his ranks and the weakness in Russia’s own border defenses. The ease with which Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries were able to take control of Russian territory and march to within 200 kilometers of Moscow — and the videos of Russians cheering for them — showed Putin’s regime is far from invincible.

“Today the world saw that Russia’s bosses do not control anything,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his evening address late Saturday. “In one day, they lost several of their million-plus cities and showed all Russian bandits, mercenaries, oligarchs and anyone else how easy it is to capture Russian cities and, probably, weapons arsenals.”

Switching from Ukrainian to Russian, Zelenskyy continued in what was clearly a message to Putin’s apparatchiks: “The man from the Kremlin is obviously very afraid and is probably hiding somewhere, not showing himself. I’m sure he is no longer in Moscow … He knows what he’s afraid of because he himself created this threat. All the evil, all the losses, all the hatred — he foments it himself. The longer he can run between his bunkers, the more you will all lose, all of those who are connected with Russia.”

Putin, a fan of historic parallels, on Saturday morning invoked the specter of the Russian civil war, which broke out in 1917 as the country was fighting the First World War — an indication of how seriously he appeared to view the Prigozhin threat.

But perhaps Putin ought to look to the failed 1991 August Coup against then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Back then, Communist Party hardliners furious at Gorbachev’s attempts to ram through reforms detained the leader at his dacha in Crimea and rolled their tanks into Moscow. Like Prigozhin’s failed mutiny, the August Coup of 1991 was short-lived — it only lasted three days. But the fallout was catastrophic for the Soviet Union — it led to a loss of confidence in the Communist regime, and by December of 1991, the USSR was no more.

Wagner’s role in Putin’s war

Wagner mercenaries have played an important role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As an unofficial arm of the Kremlin’s armed forces, recruited from Russia’s prisons and alleyways, they have been among Putin’s most expendable men.

A force with a capacity for horrific savagery — including executions of deserters with sledgehammers — Prigozhin’s men were thrown into the most brutal battles — offcuts in Russia’s famous military meat-grinder.

Last winter, when Russian forces were depleted and demoralized in the wake of a surging Ukrainian counteroffensive that took back Kharkiv and Kherson, Moscow used Prigozhin’s mercenaries to plug gaps in the battlefront and give his regular troops breathing space.

As Wagner mercenaries held the line over the winter, Russia was able to replenish its dwindling arms supplies, and call up and train a fresh wave of conscripts to throw into the trenches.

Prigozhin’s forces were also instrumental in the battle for Bakhmut, the strategic town in eastern Ukraine that has seen some of the heaviest fighting and highest Russian casualties of the war.

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What happens to Prigozhin’s forces now?

On Sunday, Prigozhin’s mercenaries started pulling out of Russia’s southern Voronezh region, which is situated along a highway that the Wagner Group wanted to use to march on Moscow, and from Rostov-on-Don, the Russian city close to the Ukrainian border seized by Wagner on Saturday.

The question is, where will they go now?

With Prigozhin out of the way, the Wagner mercenaries will either go back to where they came from or sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense | Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

With Prigozhin out of the way (and likely avoiding all windows, doorknobs, teacups and umbrellas during his supposed exile in Belarus), the Wagner mercenaries — 25,000 of them, if Prigozhin is to be believed — will either go back to where they came from, or sign contracts with the Russian defense ministry.

Indeed, Russian military bloggers have speculated that Prigozhin launched his offensive on the country’s military leadership in response to the Kremlin seeking to defang him by integrating his mercenaries into the army. (Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu earlier this month ordered all “volunteer detachments” at the front in the Ukraine war to sign contracts with the ministry by July 1 — which Prigozhin vowed to oppose.)

But the Wagner mercenaries who do sign contracts may not make much of a difference on the battlefield now.

“Wagner bought the Russian army time over winter,” said Mick Ryan, a military strategist and retired Australian Army major general. “But with or without Wagner, it’s going to be difficult for Russia to win this war,” he added.

“As we’re seeing now, there’s a big difference in will on the two sides,” Ryan said. “The Ukrainians are absolutely dedicated to saving their country, they’re fighting for their freedom. The Russians are kind of interested in fighting Ukraine — and kind of interested in fighting each other.”

And to what extent can Putin ever trust his new recruits, who were ready to storm Moscow under Prigozhin’s command?

“Russia has just lost 25,000 soldiers,” Retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, a former general of the U.S. forces in Europe, told Times Radio on Sunday, referring to the Wagner mercenaries. “Every one of them is going to be looked at with suspicion and seen as unreliable.”

Putin’s humiliation a boost for Kyiv

With the full-scale war in its 16th month and Putin’s forces deeply entrenched in Ukraine’s south and east, Kyiv has struggled to make significant gains in its counteroffensive.

But the extraordinary events on Saturday gave Ukraine’s forces a much-needed morale boost.

“For our soldiers, it was also very motivating,” Ukrainian MP Kira Rudik, from the liberal Holos party, said in an interview with Times Radio. “It is a great proof that you can fight Russia and you can win [against] Russia and it’s very good that the world has seen that.”

Kyiv’s forces have been hitting Russian positions in the south and the east of Ukraine, looking for a way to push through the Kremlin’s line, like they did last year.

Prigozhin’s antics have forced the Kremlin to shore up control of Russian territory rather than direct the entire might of its armed forces at Ukraine. That provides an opening for Kyiv — if it can get the gear it says it needs to push through Russia’s positions.

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A person holds a Wagner Group flag in Rostov-on-Don | Roman Romokhov/AFP via Getty Images

Zelenskyy, in his Saturday address, renewed his call for the West to supply Ukraine with more weapons, to enable the country to take advantage of Putin’s moment of weakness. “Now is the time to provide all the weapons necessary,” Zelenskyy said, name-checking U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets and tactical missile systems.

“If the Ukrainians are able to exploit this, particularly in the east, near Bakhmut, at the end of the day they just need one breakthrough,” said Ryan, the military strategist. “If they punch through Russian defenses and keep that penetration open, the Russians are going to be in real trouble — they are very brittle. The Ukrainians just need to do this once. And the Russians are going to be chasing their tails thereafter.”

Ominous signal for Putin

Prigozhin’s macho-man missives railing at Russia’s military leadership tapped into a general sense among his countrymen that the “special military operation” isn’t going as well as it ought to, given what they view as Ukraine’s military inferiority.

While the warlord stopped just short of directly blaming Putin for Russia’s lackluster battlefield performance, he insinuated in his barrage of posts on Telegram late Friday and early Saturday that the Russian president had at the very least been manipulated by those in his circle.

Prigozhin’s implication: That Putin is out of touch, weak, easily bamboozled — the polar opposite of the image the strong-man leader has carefully cultivated over his decades at Russia’s helm.

And Prigozhin’s attacks seem to have found a receptive audience.

The scenes in Rostov, where crowds of Russians welcomed the Wagner mercenaries with chanting and cheering, revealed the extent to which support is waning for members of Putin’s inner sanctum — particularly his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his overall commander of the war on Ukraine, General Valery Gerasimov.

Perhaps even more telling was Wagner’s superstar exit as its tanks and heavily armed forces pulled out of Rostov. The crowds applauded, whistled, waved Wagner flags, and yelled “Great job! Great job!” and “Wagner! Wagner!” — just hours after Putin labeled Prigozhin and his followers traitors.

“I think what the world has seen is that Putin is not almighty,” said Rudik, the Ukrainian MP. Referring to the deal negotiated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko under which Prigozhin would depart for Belarus in return for being spared prosecution by Russia, she said: “I think the situation was very, very much like the Wizard of Oz, where Prigozhin looked for the great and terrible Putin and it turned out that it was just a man who was really scared and had to have a leader of another country, so-called President Lukashenko, to talk to him to get him in his senses.”

“What happened [Saturday] was not the end,” Rudik added. “It was the beginning, to show that Putin does not control the country and that he’s not invincible, and that if you have enough strength you can try and fight him. And I think for many nationalistic movements in Russia, they were waiting for the opportunity.”




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