For some Ukrainian forces, the soldiers from the Wagner Group were the best-equipped fighters they had seen since Russia invaded last year. For others, it was their training that set them apart: Ukrainian soldiers recalled stories of aggressive battlefield tactics or a sniper downing a drone with a single shot.
But after the short-lived mutiny led by the head of the group, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, it is unclear if Wagner will remain a fighting force on the battlefield with his fate now in doubt.
For now, Wagner’s uncertain status will surely come as a relief to Ukrainian soldiers. Although the front lines in Ukraine are likely to remain unchanged in the near term, depending on how events unfold in Russia, the Ukrainian military may capitalize on the chaos and weakening morale to try to make some gains, according to independent analysts. and US officials.
Still, it is too early to determine the long-term implications of the dispute between Prigozhin and the Russian military, US officials said. At Bakhmut, Wagner played a leading role in the campaign to take the eastern city, Moscow’s only major battlefield victory this year, and solidified an uneasy alliance with the Russian military, only to see the partnership broken. once the city was captured.
“It is likely that the previous relationship between Wagner and the Russian government has ended,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Research. “Even if this had not happened, it was not clear whether Wagner would have played the same role in this war that he did in the battle of Bakhmut.”
Heavy fighting in Bakhmut resulted in large numbers of Russians being injured or killed in the early months of this year, US officials said. By taking the city this spring, Wagner’s forces showed they had learned hard lessons from fighting over the past year, improving their tactics and making it much more difficult for Ukraine to mount a strong defense.
Wagner’s hired fighters overcame the Ukrainian defenders by using skillful maneuvering on the ground and sending wave after wave of conscripted prisoners into the fight.
But Bakhmut was a pyrrhic victory for Prigozhin.
The city was not a prize that many in the Russian military thought was particularly important. Its strategic value further diminished when Ukraine’s armed forces seized high ground on the outskirts of Bakhmut, preventing Russia from using the city as a staging ground for attacks that could have led Moscow to seize Kramatorsk, the next city it sought to expand. its control of eastern Ukraine.
Furthermore, the events that unfolded during and after Bakhmut’s capture appear to have precipitated the rupture between Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry.
Mr. Prigozhin’s forces were able to take the city center only after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the regular army to strengthen Wagner’s troops to protect their flanks from attacks by the Ukrainians.
That influx of Russian troops was key to Wagner’s victory and reinforced the importance of the army. But Prigozhin may have learned a different lesson from the support he got from Putin.
After seizing Bakhmut, the Russian Defense Ministry took steps to integrate Wagner into the larger army, which would have reduced Prigozhin’s power. When Russia forced all volunteers fighting in Ukraine to sign contracts with the ministry, it meant Prigozhin would have had to put his forces under military control, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“This is one of the reasons why Prigozhin went crazy,” Stanovaya said, “because he realized that he is now out of Ukraine.”
After that, Prigozhin became increasingly strident in his criticism of Russian military units, and American, British, and Ukrainian intelligence services began to develop information that he might make an offensive move with his troops to force a change in the Ministry of Defence. That intelligence proved correct on Friday, when Wagner’s troops moved to seize control of a southern Russian city.
Just as quickly, the riot ended the next day, ending with the announcement that Prigozhin would stop his march on Moscow and accept exile in Belarus.
The Kremlin announced that Wagner’s troops who did not participate in the revolt could sign contracts with the Defense Ministry. Those who had joined the convoy would not be prosecuted. The statement suggested that Wagner in its current form would no longer exist.
Although part of Prigozhin’s mercenary cadre is likely to remain under the control of the Russian army, it is an open question how many Wagner soldiers would be willing to fight under the ministry’s umbrella.
Ukraine will surely look to take advantage of the chaos caused by Prigozhin, but there appear to be no immediate defensive loopholes to exploit, according to US officials and independent analysts.
And Prigozhin’s march, at least according to preliminary analysis, did not prompt any Russian units on Friday or Saturday to abandon their positions in southern or eastern Ukraine to come to the defense of Moscow, US officials said. As the drama unfolded, there was no letup in the war: Russian forces fired more than 50 missiles across Ukraine before dawn on Saturday.
Wagner has been an incredibly important tool of Russian foreign policy, particularly in Mali, the Central African Republic, Syria, and other countries. While the group will most likely become under the control of the Defense Ministry, it is not certain that the Kremlin will allow it to fade away as an effective fighting force.
And, Mr. Prigozhin may also have some next move yet to be made.