Ukraine’s highly touted counteroffensive to regain territory seized by Russian invaders had shown little progress in its initial days, but that was before the near-coup in Moscow and the possible removal from the battlefield of thousands of Wagner Group mercenaries, a key backbone of Russian ground operations over the past year.
While Ukrainian troops continue to be slowed by a range of factors, including scores of landmines planted by Russia along the 600-mile front in the country’s east, most military analysts agree the recent upheaval presents an opportunity for Kiev — if only to seize on the Russian military’s already shaky morale and willingness to fight.
“The best things the Ukrainians have going for themselves is their courageous military and Russia’s self-inflicted wounds, of which there are many at this point,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former senior CIA officer who served as the agency’s Moscow station chief.
Even prior to the short-lived but intense mutiny by Wagner Group commander Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russian troop “morale already was low,” Mr. Hoffman, who writes a regular opinion column for The Washington Times, said in an interview Tuesday.
“This is now going to be a forever kind of hit to the Russian army,” he said. “The fact that Ukrainian forces are in the fight and killing Russians means Russian troop morale is only going to get worse.”
At the same time, however, Mr. Hoffman cautioned against jumping to the conclusion that Ukrainian forces are on the verge of making dramatic territorial gains in the country’s east. In addition to being slowed by landmines, he said, Ukrainian forces continue to operate without close air support or substantial long-range artillery as they probe dug-in Russian fortifications.
“You can be defensive without these things, but it’s hard to be on the offensive, and it’s ultimately hard to predict what’s going to happen over the coming days and weeks,” Mr. Hoffman said. “We’ll see if Ukrainian forces get a massive territorial gain.”
Despite concern over the prospect of escalation in Ukraine, other analysts say the moment is ripe for Ukrainian forces to strike.
“The recent turn of events in Russia could not come at a better time for Ukraine,” according to John “Buss” Barranco, who was the 2021-22 senior U.S. Marine Corps fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
“Ukraine’s best chance for a successful counteroffensive is to attack deep behind the current Russian front line and force the Russians to fall back from their six hundred miles of layered defense-in-depth fighting positions to prevent Ukraine from cutting Russia off from its supply lines,” he said in comments circulated by the think tank.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested on Monday that Kyiv is eager to seize upon the moment of chaos within the Russian security establishment, although he provided no specific details.
With that as a backdrop, Ukrainian security officials have exuded confidence, but remained guarded about making proclamations about the fate of the counteroffensive.
“Of course whenever an opportunity arises and exposes a vulnerability of the enemy, that opportunity will be used,” Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, told NBC News from Kyiv. “But I don’t think it’s helpful for us to look at the events [in Moscow] as some unique opportunity for anything. For us, it is important to stay focused on our military objectives.”
There has thus far been no indication of major tactical shifts by either the Russian Army or Ukrainian military forces along the front lines, although speculation swirled on Tuesday as details began to emerge of the deal that Russian President struck with Wagner Group commander Yevgeny Prigozhin to end the mercenary group’s insurrection.
Ukrainian officials note that the bulk of a new infusion of trained troops has still not entered the battle in eastern Ukraine. Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, in an interview with the Financial Times, said the modest gains so far, including the recapture of a number of villages and about 50 square miles of territory, should not be seen as the “main event” of the counteroffensive.
While major uncertainty remains over what the future role of Wagner fighters will be in Ukraine and in other hot spots around the world where the fighters have been deployed in recent years, it was reported Tuesday that Mr. Prigozhin had safely arrived in exile to Belarus, along with an unknown number of his estimated 25,000 fighters.
Mr. Putin gave a speech Tuesday in which he publicly acknowledged for the first time that the group had been exclusively financed by the Kremlin — receiving $1 billions over a one-year period between 2022 and 2023 alone.
There were signs the Kremlin is now scrambling to take control of the group’s fighters and reshape their role in Ukraine, with the Russian Defense Ministry announcing Tuesday that it will take control of Wagner’s heavy weaponry. A push by Mr. Putin to force Wagner Group fighters to register with the regular Russian army is believed to be one of the primary factors Mr. Prigozhin staged his stunning rebellion.
An analysis published Tuesday by the Institute for the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), maintained that Mr. Putin sought in his remarks Tuesday to “persuade as many Wagner fighters and leaders as possible to join the Russian military and continue fighting against Ukraine.”
“The Kremlin indicated that Russia aims to retain Wagner forces in order to sustain its operations in Ukraine and other international engagements,” the think tank’s analysis said. “Putin could have arrested the Wagner commanders for treason but instead offered to forgive and integrate Wagner forces – which indicates his need for trained and effective manpower.”
There are also signs that the developments may inspire the U.S. and NATO to increase weapons deliveries to Ukrainian forces, while keeping a wary eye of the sudden presence of so many Wagner Group mercenaries in Belarus — just north of Ukraine and on the border of a number of NATO states in Eastern Europe.
The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it will send up to $500 million in fresh military aid to Kyiv, including an infusion of missiles for air defense systems and more than 50 heavily armored vehicles.
The aid is aimed at bolstering Ukraine’s counteroffensive, according to The Associated Press, which noted that the development marks the 41st time since the Russian invasion began in February 2022 that the U.S. has provided military weapons and equipment through presidential drawdown authority. The program allows the Pentagon to quickly take items from its own stocks and deliver them to Ukraine.
And NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the Western alliance is watching closely the military fallout from the Russian events of recent days.
While it is “too early to make any final judgment about the consequences” of the abortive coup, Mr. Stoltenberg told reporters in The Hague this week, “what is absolutely clear is that we have sent a clear message to Moscow and to Minsk that NATO is there to protect every ally and every inch of NATO territory.”
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