Dr Bob Seely is chair of the APPG on Russia, and is MP for the Isle of Wight. He lived in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet states.
After a weekend of chaos in Russia, are they any certainties that we can point to amid the cacophony of rumour and claim?
I believe there are three, and they will directly affect how the Ukraine war is fought and its outcome. They are first, Russian and Ukrainian military morale, second, political stability in Russia, and third, the unity of Russian military command.
First, morale. There would have been two very conflicting emotions this weekend on the two sides of the 600-miles frontline in Southern and Eastern Ukraine. On the Ukraine side, an excited schadenfreude – pleasure in the misfortunes of others – but on the Russian side something approaching dread.
As well as kit and a way of fighting, armies need a collective morale. The morale to the physical is as ten is to one, to paraphrase Napoleon. He was right. If you don’t want to fight, all the kit in the world is not going to make you, and if you do want to fight, you use what you can, as Ukraine did at the start of the war, hence their extraordinary development of DYI drones.
Russian soldiers will be able to follow events on the Telegram Social Media channel and official media. Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeni Prigozhin’s drive to Moscow was no secret. Russian soldiers may start asking in greater numbers what they are doing in this desperate war. They may wonder whether it is better to kill their officers rather than obey them. They may consider their chances of desertion rather than fighting.
That doesn’t mean Ukrainian victory is assured, far from it. Russian engineers have done a competent job of constructing defensive positions and maze of landmines to holdback Ukrainian forces or at least channel them into kill zones.
Ukraine’s progress, even given Russian low morale, may be very slow, until it can break through in which case the battlefield could change quickly, as long as those Ukrainian forces can maintain supply and momentum. That problem – supplying moving forces so that they can continue to break deep into enemy-held territory – caused Russian forces in World War I to fatally pause on a number of occasions. The answer, developed by early Soviet leaders, was the theory of ‘deep battle’. Ukraine now needs its own ability to conduct ‘deep battle’ operations.
Second, Russian political stability. Political chaos and military success are rarely happy bedfellows. Dictators advertise vulnerability at their peril. To do so is fatal to their chances or survival. That Putin has had to negotiate with the man he built up and who did some of the Kremlin’s dirty work in Ukraine, Syria and in Africa, is a very significant blow to his credibility. The cracks in his regime will become wider, the potential plots against him more difficult to control.
It’s worth remembering that a Prigozhin’s mercenary force was able to walk into the Southern Military District HQ in Rostov on Saturday without a shot being fired. This is devastating. They were not seen as the enemy.
Putin has re-established control, for now. Whether it remains is very unclear. However, what is likely is that any violence for control of Russia, or prolonged and public infighting will probably destroy military cohesion on the front, in the same way it did in 1917. Chaos in Moscow may yet herald a military collapse. Putin’s decision point then may be whether to accept defeat or use tactical nuclear weapons. The former is the more likely but I would not rule out the latter.
Third, I think it is likely that the Russian military command will now start to see private military companies as a threat to Russia’s political and military security and, in Ukraine, to the concept of unity of command. Wagner is the most well-know, but there are other private armed forces in Russia that are there to support the interests of those who pay them. Putin has also used the Chechen forces who are primarily loyal to their leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Again, violence between Chechens loyal to Putin and ethnic Russians loyal to Prigozhin would have been a disaster for the regime, especially in southern Russia and especially given the two recent conflicts in Chechnya fought within living memory that claimed the lives of thousands of Russians.
Meanwhile Prigozhin and some of his Wagner fighters are setting up base in Belarus, some 8,000 in all, according to the latest reports on Russian Telegram accounts. Effectively, Belarus is hosting one of the world’s largest organised and most public organised crime groups. This strikes me as a pause, not an end, to the struggle for power inside Russia. They will bide their time until Prigozhin negotiates his way back into the Kremlin’s good books, or is killed by them, or takes part in a more successful coup than the one he lead on Saturday. How much time and effort will Russian security agencies now spend keeping tabs and planning operations against Wagner, not Ukraine?
What can we do? Hoover up every bit of information and analysis we can. Task our agencies within finding out not only what is happening but what might happen, work through scenarios, especially the dangerous ones. We can and should keep supporting Ukraine and hope that, as Putin has negotiated this week when weak, he will, when faced with defeat in the Ukraine war, do the same.
In particular, the Ukrainian armed forces need to be flooded with the single most important piece of kit the now need, FPV (First Person View) ‘kamakaze’ drones, which can loiter, find targets and strike.
In summary, what is clear is that this week Russia is more politically unstable than before, with a shaken unity of command in one of its key battle HQs, with its morale of its soldiers depressed, facing a Ukrainian force emboldened by the chaos.
Ukraine hopes for liberation. Russia fears a summer of military and political chaos.