But the withdrawal of the Kremlin-funded mercenaries — who provided Russia with some of its most brutal and capable combat units — hasn’t so far made it easier for Ukraine’s high-stakes counteroffensive, and it’s not clear whether it will, according to officials and analysts.
Ukraine confirmed on Wednesday that Wagner troops were no longer fighting at the front, replaced by a mix of paratroopers and inexperienced regular troops. But deputy defense minister Hanna Malyar said at the same time the group’s revolt had yet to impact the war.
Many in Kyiv saw the march on Moscow led by Putin’s once favored caterer, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, as a sign of growing division within the Russian state that would sap morale among Russian forces and distract from the Kremlin’s war effort.
Some also celebrated the fighters’ potential exit from the field, after they won Russia’s only victory in a bloody winter offensive.
“One of the most combat-ready and brutal military units in Russia has been eliminated!” Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior ministry, and a prolific commentator on the war, tweeted on Tuesday.
Yet, like Ukraine’s defense ministry, western military analysts see any impact from Wagner’s reduced participation in the war as limited.
The number of professional troops Prigozhin had fighting in Ukraine has never been clear and could be lower than the 25,000 often estimated. Bloated by the recruitment of prison convicts over the winter, the Wagner force has shrunk back toward its original core of professional fighters.
Michael Kofman, a specialist on the Russian military at CNA, a Washington think tank, has estimated that Prigozhin probably had closer to 15,000 of his permanent troops fighting in Ukraine.
And while Wagner played an important role in the war over the winter, that was limited to a relentless attack on Ukrainian defenses in and around the eastern city of Bakhmut, a small section of the roughly 1,000 kilometer (620 mile) front line. Prigozhin pulled many of those fighters back from combat weeks ago, handing over to the regular Russian army.
“They were not playing a key role in the war at this time,” Rob Lee, a former US Marines officer and senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said in a Monday podcast for the military affairs website, War on the Rocks. “It was never clear after Bakhmut what their role would be in the rest of the war.”
Ukrainian forces began to push back around Bakhmut almost as soon as Prigozhin declared the town captured in May. Those gradual advances have continued since Saturday’s revolt, according to both Ukraine’s Defense Ministry and Russian military bloggers.
President Vladimir Putin made it clear in his televised remarks on Monday night that the government is keen to persuade as many Wagner troops as possible to sign contracts with Russia’s Defense Ministry, tapping the pool of experienced fighters to sustain the war effort in Ukraine.
How many will answer that call, go home to their families or follow Prigozhin to his expected exile in Belarus won’t start to emerge until next week, when a July 1 deadline for signing up with the Russian Defense Ministry expires.
While Ukraine’s advances around Bakhmut were likely aided by Wagner’s reduced role in the sector, Moscow’s reliance on the group was a symptom of much wider problems in the Russian army, rather than a solution to them, according to a person close to the Russian Defense Ministry.
The Kremlin relied on Wagner and inflated its significance because of systematic faults in its regular army, and those won’t disappear with Wagner, the person said.
Equally unclear are the longer-term impacts that the weekend’s events may have on the war, with possibilities ranging from a collapse of morale among Russian forces in Ukraine, to a new round of mobilization by Putin as he seeks to reaffirm his authority among Prigozhin’s hawkish supporters and admirers.
Upside for Kyiv
But there are potential positives for Kyiv. Those in Washington seeking to further support for Ukraine’s war effort have seen their case bolstered, while it’s also possible that Nato countries up their commitments at a leaders’ summit next month.
Malyar, the deputy defense minister, said that when Ukraine’s military plan offensive and defensive actions they take political instability in Russia into account.
And one shoe that didn’t drop during Prigozhin’s revolt may have provided an important piece of information for Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which remains at an early stage as its forces try to create weaknesses in Russia’s defensive lines.
Wagner’s virtually unopposed march through Russian territory suggests there may have been no pool of ready reserves, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank that maps and chronicles the fighting. Had they existed, they likely would have been diverted to intercept Prigozhin and his troops.
“Prigozhin’s rebellion has illustrated that Russian forces lack reserves in many rear areas and almost certainly will degrade the morale of Russian personnel in Ukraine,” the ISW said in its June 25 assessment of the war. And that, it added, is “knowledge that Ukrainian forces may use to adjust attempts at breaking through Russian defenses.”