Kyiv and Washington have said Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Moscow’s invasion force can exploit the turmoil caused in Russia by the Wagner mercenary group’s brief revolt and the cracks that it exposed in the Kremlin’s authority.
Wagner fighters seized the major southern Russian city of Rostov on Saturday and then set off in convoy towards Moscow, smashing through barricades and shooting down several military aircraft as panicked authorities dug trenches in major highways to stop their advance. The mercenaries went back to base after a deal was agreed that neither they nor their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, would face charges, and he would go into exile in Belarus.
Neither Mr Prigozhin’s whereabouts nor details of the deal were known on Sunday, and it was unclear whether his main demand – for Russian defence chiefs to be sacked for bungling the war in Ukraine – had found any support with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“Any uprising, any problem that arises in the enemy’s rear is in our interest ... they are for the good of our victory,” said Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, described the Wagner revolt as “the first stage of the dismantling of Putin’s system” and “the tip of the iceberg of the destabilisation process” in Russia.
The mutiny coincides with a counteroffensive in which Ukraine has retaken several villages and more than 100 sq km of territory, in what it calls “shaping” operations before the main attack, which will employ newly formed brigades armed with training and weapons from western allies.
“To the extent that it presents a real distraction for Putin and for Russian authorities that they have to look at – sort of mind their rear even as they’re trying to deal with the counteroffensive in Ukraine – I think that creates even greater openings for the Ukrainians to do well on the ground,” said US secretary of state Antony Blinken.
“These [events] create more cracks in the Russian facade, and those cracks were already profound. Economically, militarily, its standing in the world – all of those things have been dramatically diminished by Putin’s aggression against Ukraine,” he added.
“So across the board this has been a strategic failure. Now you introduce into that profound internal divisions, and there are lots of questions he’s going to have to answer in the weeks ahead.”
In an interview aired by Russian state television on Sunday but recorded before the revolt, Mr Putin said: “We feel confident ... we are in a position to implement all the plans and tasks in advance of us. This also applies to the country’s defence, it applies to the ‘special military operation,’ it applies to the economy as a whole and its individual areas.”