27.06.23 Prigozhin Analytics

War and Revolt: How are the outcome of the Wagner rebellion and the prospects of the Ukrainian counteroffensive connected?

The Ukrainian counteroffensive and the defence of the 'Crimean corridor' remain a major challenge for the Kremlin. So far, the counteroffensive’s lack of success and the robustness of the Russian defence have solidified the administrative and political positions of the current leadership of the Ministry of Defence, and have predetermined the instrumental defeat of Prigozhin. However, the threat of a Ukrainian breakthrough still remains high, and conducting a new mobilisation is politically risky. In this situation, the loss of the Wagner PMCs (Private Military Companies) units as a result of internal conflict seemed too dangerous for the Kremlin. The 'reconciliatory' outcome of the rebellion is extremely humiliating for Putin, but might allow him to preserve both the current leadership of the Ministry of Defence, which is the key to defence today, and the Wagner units, which may be necessary in the future, or may even create new threats for Ukraine during the summer-autumn military campaign.

The Battle for the Corridor

Rebellion aside, the war continues as scheduled. The shocking military uprising within Russia has not yet affected the theatre of military operations, where a new operational and tactical situation has emerged over the past month.

The main outcome of the first weeks of the Ukrainian offensive was that the Russian front has not 'crumbled' anywhere, showing no organisational and managerial weaknesses, and the established lines of defence have proven reliable in the face of the new military equipment provided to Ukraine by the Western coalition. This is the result of a new Russian strategy: at the end of the winter, the Russian side abandoned the large-scale offensive in Ukraine expected of them. Instead, they allowed the Wagner PMCs to grind down recruited prisoners near the strategically insignificant Bakhmut while focusing on the defence of the 'Crimean corridor.' This new strategy was adopted after Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, was appointed as Commander of the Joint Grouping in January 2023. Its success determines Gerasimov's administrative and political weight today, including in the war that Prigozhin has declared against him. 

The land corridor to Crimea, which turns the Sea of Azov into an inland sea of Russia and securely connects annexed Crimea with mainland Russia, is a palliative but acceptable trophy that can serve as justification for this war in the eyes of some Russians, at least under the conditions of dictatorship and the suppression of internal opposition. In this context, Putin's task is to demonstrate that Ukrainian forces are unable to break down the corridor's defence. According to the Kremlin's plans, this will stabilise the front line, create an impression of its impregnability, and persuade the West to consider the need to 'freeze' the conflict ahead of the US presidential elections. Meanwhile, Moscow will be busy engaged in the 'normalisation' of the new reality, including the accelerated 'integration' of the occupied territories, 'purges,' inducing the population to collaborate, and constructing new infrastructure. The significance of the current battle for both sides is determined by these factors.

The Front Holds Firm: What Comes Next?

As Re:Russia has previously reported, thanks to Western supplies, the Ukrainian army now enjoys an advantage in terms of equipment but faces limitations when it comes to personnel replenishment and its positions are more vulnerable than the well-defended positions of the Russian forces. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, the area of liberated territory on the Melitopol and Berdyansk fronts increased by 17 square kilometres in the past week, reaching a total of 130 square kilometres since the start of the offensive in the south. Western analysts and the press meanwhile seem to believe that the Ukrainian advance is stalling, although they caution against jumping to hasty conclusions.

The main challenge, as anticipated by experts prior to the offensive, lies in the dense system of fortifications consisting of concrete trenches, barbed wire, anti-tank ditches, and extensive anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Although these fortifications bear resemblance to structures from World War II, analysts still consider these among the few successes Russia has achieved in the Ukrainian campaign, labelling them a 'serious tactical problem for the Ukrainian offensive operation.' On some fronts, these defensive lines stretch more than 30 kilometres deep, and the clearance of mined areas presents an additional challenge. Russian anti-personnel mines have multiple triggering mechanisms and tamper-proof devices, often lacking clear markings and adhering to inconsistent standards. This makes their identification and subsequent neutralisation more challenging (Russia did not sign the 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning the use and destruction of non-detectable anti-personnel mines, and it appears that these reserves are now being deployed).

The topography of the terrain is also slowing the Ukrainian advance. Unlike the hilly landscapes of Donbas or the dense forests in the north, the counteroffensive zone is largely open fields, depriving the Ukrainian Armed Forces of natural cover, according to The New York Times. Further, Russian attack helicopters, such as the Ka-52, have proven elusive to Ukrainian air defence systems, hampering the Ukrainian advance and inflicting damage on their military equipment. The success of Ukraine now hinges on how many tanks, armoured vehicles, and soldiers it can preserve before reaching the main defensive line and breaking through it, The New York Times notes. Over the winter, Ukraine and its Western allies trained and equipped approximately 40,000 soldiers for the offensive, but how many of these will remain operational during the decisive breakthrough remains to be seen.

Four Scenarios and the Fate of 'Wagner'

At the outset of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, RAND analysts described three possible scenarios for its development and outcomes. The first scenario envisions a significant success for the counteroffensive: the Ukrainian Armed Forces would break through key lines of Russian fortifications, sever the land corridor to Crimea, and reclaim a significant portion of the occupied territories. By leveraging modern technologies, including unmanned surface vessels, Ukraine could begin to block access to Crimea by disabling the railway and road bridges across the Kerch Strait (However, analysts note that any preparations for a direct attack on Crimea would increase the risk of Russia's use of nuclear weapons). In this scenario, Putin loses any arguments for coercing Ukraine and the West into a de facto freezing of the conflict or reaching some temporary agreement.

Such an outcome would have serious consequences for the domestic situation in Russia. New military failures significantly impact the domestic political environment, fuelling war fatigue and eroding belief in the war coming to a successful conclusion. Moreover, these failures — now evident — will reignite domestic political conflicts, as exemplified by the recent revolt involving Prigozhin.

The second scenario offered by RAND suggests only partial success for the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Ukrainian Armed Forces would manage to break through some Russian lines of defence and recapture only a portion of the occupied territories. Ukrainian forces would face disruption of their communication and weapon delivery systems due to Russian electronic warfare, resulting in a loss of situational awareness and reduced overall operational effectiveness. The situation would remain unstable for both sides, as they continue to build up forces to tilt the balance in their favour.

The third scenario assumes that the counteroffensive stalls, and as such the Ukrainian forces would make little progress in liberating new territories. Russian troops, having suffered significant losses over the past year and a half, would be unable to push the Ukrainians back to the positions of July 2022. However, Russia may deploy its more or less intact air and missile forces to inflict serious damage on Ukrainian command centres and armoured units. There is a risk that the Russian Air Force and missile troops could overwhelm a significant portion of Ukraine's air defences.

Nevertheless, a fourth scenario, which the analysts at RAND considered unlikely within the framework of their third scenario, is also possible. Russian Defence Minister Shoigu recently announced Russia's intention to prepare a 'reserve army.' If Ukrainian forces are exhausted by an unsuccessful counteroffensive, such an army could be deployed for a new Russian offensive. However, the implementation of such a scenario appears unrealistic at the moment. It would require recruiting or mobilising a significant contingent, and Russian authorities will soon be faced with the need to rotate mobilised forces for the autumn campaign. Simultaneously accomplishing these two tasks will be impossible without a new mass mobilisation, which could undermine the fragile loyalty of the Russian population to the war.

In any case, the issue of available reserves of manpower, particularly qualified personnel, will remain extremely critical for both sides. This factor, among others, explains the motives behind the Russian authorities' decision to 'reconcile' with the Wagner PMC rebel forces and Putin's renewed appeal to them on the evening of June 26. Although for the moment the mutiny has not had a direct impact on the situation at the front, in the context of the summer-autumn military campaign, the Russian side may have lost a significant combat-ready group the size of a brigade in the form of the Wagner PMC, as noted in an overview of the situation by The Washington Post. Apparently, Moscow considered this too great a risk.

Thus, at present, the defence of the Crimean corridor from the Ukrainian counteroffensive is the primary concern for Moscow, the responsibility for which rests on the current leadership of the Ministry of Defence. This likely explains Prigozhin's defeat in his confrontation with them. However, the 'reconciliation' with the Wagner PMC allows the Kremlin to employ them in case either the defence of the corridor weakens or its complete success opens a 'window of opportunity' for a Russian counteroffensive. A 'second front' scenario also seems likely if the Wagner PMC forces deployed to Belarus are reinforced by the resources of the Belarusian army.

Nevertheless, the analysts at RAND believe that the summer military operations will likely strengthen the position of Ukraine’s forces, although it is difficult to assess to what extent. They also note that, regardless of which of the scenarios they described materialises, the West will need to continue its support for Ukraine, both in terms of strengthening its armed forces and providing security guarantees (even in the event of reaching some point of settlement with Russia) and in terms of assisting in the country's reconstruction, including the demining of extensive territories that currently impede the Ukrainian counteroffensive.