Over the last forty-eight hours there’s been a bit of excitement along those gloomy corridors of power in downtown Moscow. Igor Prigozhin, proprietor of Wagner Group mercenaries, launched a cunning plan. He took over the city of Rostov on Don. Not only does that control the mouth of the River Don and access to the Sea of Azov, but it’s home to the Russian Army’s HQ for the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin captured the general and his staff, not to mention the rest of the headquarters, supporting base troops and depots. Rostov has a million residents. People in the street clapped when Wagner pulled out.
Advance parties sped off along the motorway to Moscow only stopping about two-hundred miles south-east of Moscow. That’s about the same distance as York Minster from the Festival Hall. The advance parties included mobile anti-aircraft guns. Wagner moved through Russia as they do anywhere else. By now there were troops on the streets of the capital, a rush to cash machines and super-markets, petrol pumps and internet crashes. Putin’s plane and its decoy sister left. Moscow suffered a few jitters.
Further south there was shooting. Wagner forces may have shot down up to three Mi-8 MTPR electronic warfare helicopters, one Mi-8 helicopter, one Ka-52 helicopter, one Mi-35 helicopter, one Mi-28 helicopter, and one An-26/Il-28 transport aircraft, resulting in the deaths of at least 13 pilots and airmen – one of the single deadliest days for the Russian air force of the war in Ukraine to date.
ISW say Russian sources speculated about the terms of the deal mediated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to end the Wagner Group’s 23-24 June armed rebellion, including the possible involvement of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff. Russian opposition outlet Meduza, citing unnamed internal Kremlin sources, reported that Prigozhin at first tried to get in touch with the Russian Presidential Administration around midday 24 June as Wagner fighters moved north from Rostov-on-Don towards Moscow, but Putin refused to speak with Prigozhin. Meduza observed that, once Prigozhin grew aware he lacked widespread military support for Wagner’s actions, that changed his mind on Wagner’s prospects. The Kremlin turned to negotiations involving Lukashenko, Chief of Staff of the Russian Presidential Office Anton Vaino, and Russian Ambassador to Belarus Boris Gryzlov. Vaino and Gryzlov’s possible involvement was not reported on 24 June. A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger also questioned whether the deal will hold Wagner or Prigozhin accountable in any way for the deaths of at least 13 Russian airman on 24 June. Prigozhin’s whereabouts could not be verified beyond his departure from Rostov-on-Don late on 24 June until he delivered an eleven minute rant over social media.
As ISW noted on June 24, the specifics of the deal are still unclear in the open sources beyond speculation and rumour. The fallout of Wagner’s armed rebellion has not yet ceased, and it remains to be seen how the deal will be implemented, if all involved parties will comply fully, how the Kremlin and Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) intend to deal with Wagner personnel – and if Wagner fighters will cooperate, regardless of Prigozhin’s wishes.
Prigozhin claimed that he halted his advance guard rather than be responsible for street fighting in the capital. Prigozhin likely viewed the MoD’s July 1 deadline to formalize control over all irregular formations, including Wagner, as an existential threat to his political (and possibly personal) survival. He likely elected to risk using his forces in a bid to change the MoD’s leadership rather than lose Wagner Group entirely, and as ISW assessed on June 23, his only real hope for lasting success was to secure MoD defections, and he did not do so. Many fans were ready to support him but after, backing down at the last hurdle, he’s not popular among the pro-war milbloggers. Then followed Lukashenko’s negotiations – and judging from the commentary on Meduza we may believe much of his version of the story. Both Lukashenko and Prigozhin are creatures made by Vladimir Putin, with backgrounds in secret policework or crime; none military, not even for a day. Some Russians are so suspicious of Putin they think he might be behind the whole charade. Most Russians, I suspect, will sleep better without Wagner Group holding the keys to thousands of nuclear weapons.
Putin survives but he’s been damaged. The affair has exposed Russia’s lack of reserves and poor security. Those citizens of Rostov on Don applauding Wagner’s departure to make a nuisance of themselves in Moscow, rather than their home town, says it all. Bombarding Kiev from the sky won’t change Russia’s fundamental weakness compared with the United States and NATO nor damage Ukraine’s new combined arms brigades. NATO’s coalition of the willing should stick with the Ukrainians. And they should exploit the confusion and weakness of Russia for all its worth.
Meanwhile What’s Been Happening on The Battlefields
A suggestion this week that the Ukrainian Army was going to pause its counter offensive for a directing staff review conference was swiftly dismissed by Hanna Malyar, Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister. She reported on June 19 that the Russians have committed significant forces to stop Ukrainian offensives, making Ukrainian advances difficult. Malyar added that ongoing Ukrainian operations have several tasks that are not solely focused on liberating territory and that Ukrainian forces have yet to start the main phase of counteroffensive operations.
As though to support her line, Russia’s Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, spoke to the Ministry of Defence Collegium ( a name for the original dozen ministries that go back to the days of Peter the Great ) on 20 June and began with the ongoing Ukrainian counter offensive operations in western Donetsk and Zaporizhia Oblasts. Shoigu declared that the counter offensive began on 4 June. This date is consistent with an earlier assessment made by the Institute of the Study of War ( ISW ) in Washington DC for when the counteroffensive opened
Shoigu also claimed that Ukrainian troops have launched 263 attacks on Russian positions since 4 June though denied that Ukrainian forces have made gains anywhere along the various fronts, contrary to publicly available geolocated evidence of Ukrainian advances. None-the-less, Shoigu’s words provide an idea of the intensity of Ukraine’s counter offensive. To his words let us add Putin’s remark that the Russian Army had lost 54 tanks in one series of engagements in Zaporizhia Oblast.
Situation on The Ground
The Ukrainians are attempting to break through very strong and deep defensive lines that the Russians built during the winter and to do this without air power. That’s a very tough task. They were supplied with Storm Shadow cruise missiles ( British ) to compensate for their lack of strike fighters and they have used these missiles to take out high value targets in the Russian back areas. The latest target was the main bridge to the Crimea. This gives the Ukrainians long range firepower but won’t make up for their lack of tactical air power. The sooner the Ukrainians have some fourth generation strike fighters, the better. US defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin indicated that it is ready to help Ukraine fly and maintain Lockheed’s F-16 fighter jets if NATO states agree to send some to Ukraine. Even so, this will not give them the kind of firepower that the USAF enjoys. The Americans would send relays of B1 and B 52 squadrons and fly Arclight missions – carpet bomb – safe paths through the Russian defence lines across south-eastern Ukraine.
Alternatively the Ukrainians could make greater use of their sappers, military engineers. Back in the 1950s and 1960s the Royal Engineers had a gigantic Chinese firework that went by the name of Giant Viper. Picture a big firework rocket towing a hose packed with explosive that can clear a path through a minefield 180 yards at a time. I feel confident that those clever people in Ukraine could design and make a fleet of tracked vehicles capable of firing Mega Vipers to clear safe paths 300 to 400 yards at a time, using their own resources.
If you’re Ukrainian, read on, because the Russian milbloggers have very kindly highlighted a potential strategic error.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself has stated that Ukrainian counteroffensive progress has been “slower than desired” and will take time. Zelensky noted that Ukrainian advances are not easy because Russian forces have mined 200,000 square kilometres of frontline territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin also addressed ongoing Ukrainian counter offensives and preposterously claimed that Russian forces have destroyed 244 tanks and 679 armored vehicles since these operations began on 4 June. Russian forces’ doctrinally sound defence in western Zaporizhia Oblast and prepared defensive positions throughout southern Ukraine are likely slowing Ukrainian advances, as ISW has previously assessed. A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian defensive positions in southern Ukraine, dubbed the “Surovikin Line” after former overall theatre commander General Sergei Surovikin, consist of several defensive zones between lines along dominant higher ground up to 30km into Russian held territory. The milblogger claimed that the “Surovikin Line” consists of a forward line of defence with several dozen platoon and company strongholds, and a main defensive line roughly 25km back with minefields, anti-tank ditches, and other defensive structures in between, though the extent of these defences along the entire front line is unclear. These Russian defensive lines are likely arrayed to enable a first echelon of Russian forces, deployed to the forward defensive line, to slow advancing Ukrainian forces while a second echelon of forces deployed closer to the main defensive line launch counterattacks against any Ukrainian breakthroughs, as well as providing prepared fallback positions for frontline Russian units. Localized Ukrainian territorial gains are unlikely to immediately disrupt these Russian defensive lines and localized Ukrainian attempts at rapid breakthroughs are less likely to degrade these lines than a wider concerted operational effort, one which may be focused on degrading Russian defenders and fixing reserves rather than the immediate liberation of territory.
All these layers of fortification may be ‘doctrinally sound’ but should the Ukrainians ignore them and outflank them, Russia has very kindly done what the Germans did in summer 1944 – bottled up huge numbers of men and weapons, immobile, locked inside hundreds of concrete and sandbag fortresses. I would have thought the Ukrainians might do well to employ some of those highly effective British cruise missiles – Storm Shadow – by destroying what remains of the Black Sea Fleet. That might open up an alternative route to regain Crimea. Why bang your head against a Russian concrete wall? You can always use it later for demolitions training.