After Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed rebellion, it seems as if Russia’s leaders are living in an alternate reality.
The sequence of events speaks for itself. Russian troops waved through Wagner columns on their way to Moscow and curious civilians greeted them in the street with snacks; President Vladimir Putin recast this view as a unified Russian society. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu hid out of sight while his subordinates chatted with Mr. Prigozhin; he emerged days later to praise officers for their loyalty. One of Russia’s most experienced generals, Sergei Surovikin, was filmed in a nondescript room asking Wagner to step down; he has not been seen since, while Russia’s incompetent military leadership team remains in place. Most strangely, Mr. Prigozhin – the architect of everything – goes between being ”impersonal” to apparently meet with Mr. Putin to smooth things over differences of opinion.
It’s been a bizarre few weeks. However, on the ground, the Russian military effort grinds on as before. During the short rebellion, operations continued as planned and the chain of command held. There were no signs of mass refusals, desertions or rebellions. For now, Russia’s defensive positions — stretching from Belgorod in the east to Crimea in the south — are still secure.
But for how long? The problems endemic to Russia’s campaign in Ukraine are likely to worsen. Mr. Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s top officer, will continue to conduct the war in an inappropriate manner. Retained by Mr. Putin because of their loyalty, they are now even more likely to suppress negative information and present a distorted picture of the war. House cleaning within the military, apparently ongoing, will only increase the dysfunction. For familiarity, the Kremlin chose to reinforce failure.
Whatever his fate will be after the failed uprising, Mr. Prigozhin’s criticisms of the war are still dangerous — because they are right. He repeatedly showed, with crude, angry language, what war is like badly managed at the highest levels of out-of-touch bureaucrats, leading to many logistical problems and ammunition shortages. He criticized Mr. Shoigu and General Gerasimov for downplaying bad news and deceiving Mr. Putin while also engaging in little plots with subordinates. He noted how the children of Russia elite to avoid military service while the poor return home in coffins.
But Mr. Putin’s cocoon of loyal interlocutors filters out these problems and instead offers an alternate point of view to both the president and a disengaged public. Dmitri Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s national security council, says 185,000 men have joined the Russian. military only in 2023. The Ministry of Defense claims to have destroyed over twice as much HIMARS as ever were delivered to Ukraine. As Mr. Shoigu says, “Everything is going according to plan.” None of this is true.
The disappearance of General Surovikin is a more telling litmus test of where things stand. Known for his focus and ruthless tactics – including the leveling of cities in Syria and Ukraine – he took command of Russian forces last fall, ordering the construction of Russia’s extensive defensive positions. (They are colloquially known as “Surovikin lines.”) He was soon demoted in favor of General Gerasimov, who within weeks of assuming command began ineffective and expensive winter offensive General Surovikin, a decorated veteran of four wars with cachet among the military, veterans and blogger communities, looked all the wiser by comparison. Now rumors are swirling about his arrest as punishment for his long-standing ties to Mr. Prigozhin and possible knowledge of the rebellion. The delay in information about his whereabouts suggests that the Kremlin is still deciding how to proceed.
In this atmosphere of suspicion and uncertainty, where prominent generals disappear and Mr. Putin rushes blame traitors, self-censorship among top military leaders is likely to become more prevalent. Mr. Shoigu and General Gerasimov, now even more dependent on Mr. Putin for their security and positions, might be more likely to hide or soften bad news from the battlefield to maintain his confidence. That would further undermine the Kremlin’s grip on the true state of the war – and at a crucial time in the conflict.
All is not well Russian front lines. It is not yet clear whether Wagner forces will fully withdraw from Ukraine. If they leave, higher casualties will be borne by regular army units at a time when they can hardly afford more losses. The Russian Army, according to the head of the armed forces of Great Britain, already has lost half of its combat effectiveness and may not have the strength to resist the Ukrainian counter-offensive that is taking place. Bunched down in their defensive positions, some front-line units have little rest and lack sufficient reserve strength to relieve them. Regular Ukrainian strikes no more ammunition depotslogistic nodes and command posts make everything more difficult. To complain about these untenable conditions, at least two generals were dismissed last week
All of this could create an opening for Ukrainian forces to exploit if they have the means. But they too experience difficulties. Subjected to persistent artillery attacks and without adequate air support, they struggle to cut through dense Russian minefields. Their combat engineers now clear mines by hand – extremely dangerous and arduous work. When Ukrainian troops were able to reach Russian trenches, they were often able to clear them. The cluster munitions just sent by the US should also help.
For now, the Russian front lines are holding, despite the dysfunctional decisions of the Kremlin. However, the cumulative pressure of bad choices is increasing. Russian front lines could crack the way Hemingway once wrote about bankruptcy: “little by little, then suddenly.”
Dara Massicot (@MassDara) is a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and a former analyst of Russian military capabilities at the US Department of Defense.