The palace intrigue surrounding Vladimir Putin and his erstwhile ally, Yevgeny Prigozhin, remains murky days after the Wagner Group commander’s aborted mutiny against the Russian military. But the fallout from the insurrection on the battlefield of Ukraine may be easier to decipher.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk served as Ukraine’s defense minister and is the currently chairman of the Kyiv-based think tank, the Center for Defense Studies. He also continues to advise President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s cabinet on defense issues. He talked with Semafor on Monday about how the discord in Moscow could impact Ukraine’s recently launched counteroffensive against Russia’s occupying forces.
Jay Solomon: How do you think this mutiny is impacting the Ukrainian military strategy now?
Andriy Zagorodnyuk: Regarding the Wagner group: Obviously we are very closely looking at the future of that group, because they had been a most successful organization during the last year. They were very, very brutal, very, very rough guys. Extremely immoral. But at the same time, they had a very different doctrine, a very different approach. And that approach allowed them to capture — in six months, they captured a city. It was actually a town. But nevertheless. And now they’re going to absorb it into the traditional armed forces and traditional doctrine. And what we are very interested in seeing is what’s going to remain for that organization.
Jay Solomon: You mean if they’re just sort of gone. That’s it.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk: Well, I mean, we’ll need to see because it’s too early to say. But if they’re gone, that’s obviously a very interesting situation, yes.
Jay Solomon: I mean, do you think there are other symmetrical or militia types ready to fill that void. Because Putin has shown over the last decade, whether in Ukraine or Syria or in Georgia, he seems tied to this idea of using non-conventional forces.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk: True, but none of them were successful.
Jay Solomon: Except for Bakhmut, no?
Andriy Zagorodnyuk: Yes, except for there. And again, that success was very limited and very pricey, even for themselves. It wasn’t scalable.
Jay Solomon: What are you looking for right now on the front lines?
Andriy Zagorodnyuk: Where are [Wagner’s men] going right now? Those guys are not going to stay home. They are going to go somewhere. And [Prigozhin] goes to Belarus? I mean, are they going to follow him? And if yes, what are they going to do? Because that group is still extremely dangerous and we certainly need to understand their direction. Some — they will sign the contract with the Ministry of Defense. And then they will probably be dispersed in different units so they don’t have any kind of unity you know. But I mean, is that it? Or there will be some guys who would still do something on their own? And if yes, where are they going to go?
Jay Solomon: Could they remobilize in Belarus? Is that a strategically useful place for them to attack if you’re Russia?
Andriy Zagorodnyuk: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. Yes, potentially. They can start from anywhere technically.
Jay Solomon: If you look at [Russia’s front line], are there certain parts that are potentially more vulnerable? The British Ministry of Defence today put out a statement. I don’t know if it was psychological warfare, but they were saying, it looks like some of the lines have been thinned around back Bakhmut.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk: I don’t know why they decided to say that. Most of them were not on the front already by the time when this happened.
Jay Solomon: Right. It’s already thinned. Do you think this will change Putin’s tactics, strategy — like he’d be more willing to use WMD?
Andriy Zagorodnyuk: I don’t think so. I think the only reason why he’s not using them is just because he understands that the consequences will be a disaster. That’s it. That’s the only single reason.
Jay Solomon: Do you think there are any other tactics that might change after this if he’s not going to go for some crazy...
Andriy Zagorodnyuk: To be honest, no, no, I don’t think so. I think we had a one-day event, which was obviously extremely remarkable. But I don’t think they will change the tactics of their armed forces at all.
Jay Solomon: How about on the psychological side. Do you think most likely that there will be attempts — whether it’s through telegram or leaflets or loudspeakers — to exploit this, you know, why the hell are you fighting for these guys?
Andriy Zagorodnyuk: Maybe in the future? Yes. Maybe in the future, we’ll see some operations trying to. I can only guess right now, but I think that the last thing you want if you are a party in this war, the last thing you want is that your sides fight against each other. Right? That’s like loss of unity is just horrible. It’s probably the worst situation you can imagine.
That’s why Putin looked so different when he was making that speech. Because that’s just the unimaginable. Putin will never forget that. He will never forgive this, he will never honor any agreements to [Prigozhin]. He doesn’t honor any agreements in general. Certainly not to this guy. I think he is in an extremely dangerous situation.