Prof Paul Pogers: The ‘march on Moscow’ highlights the leverage the US has over the war

The Russian Ministry of Defense building in Rostov-on-Don during the Wagner mutiny

A week after the start of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s abortive mutiny/coup attempt/rebellion/march on Moscow, the situation within the Russian security complex remains as murky as ever and liable to change drastically at any time.

What has become clear, though, and should cause little surprise, is that much of the output of the US intelligence machine is focused on the conflict, giving Joe Biden a persistent advantage in determining the course of the war.

The indication from multiple sources that US agencies had been closely following the activities of Prigozhin and the Wagner group, and were well aware of what was planned, is just one example of this. Agencies’ knowledge went right down to the timing of the mutiny itself, but few people were informed of this, not just among allies but also within the State Department, Pentagon and other arms of the US government.

US intelligence capabilities have played an important role right from the start of the war on 24 February last year. Putin’s original aim was to take Kyiv and install a pro-Russian government, while occupying some key parts of eastern Ukraine, many of them annexed days before the war started.

Kyiv was crucial and needed to be occupied within as short a time as possible. An airborne attack on the Hostomel airfield was key to this. Hostomel is part of the Antonov plant, which has produced some of the world’s largest military transport aircraft, and the airfield has a very long runway and large areas of tarmac. Russian troops tried to take control of it right at the start of the conflict, but the Ukraine army knew what was coming – not least from US intelligence sources – and fought for 24 hours to delay its capture.

That crucial time meant that the Russian element of surprise was lost, and Kyiv was never taken. One of the first columns in this series covering this period summed up the first few days of the conflict:

Barely three days into the war, it was clear that elements of the assault were faltering. Kyiv was under attack but not yet threatened, the Russian air force had not got full control of the airspace, with the Ukraine air force still attacking Russian armour. Even progress in the eastern sector was not matched by a full breakout from Crimea. Meanwhile, the extent of EU and NATO unity was almost certainly far higher than the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his inner power group had anticipated, leaving a very angry leader threatening nuclear escalation if NATO came anywhere near direct confrontation.

It later became clear that the Ukrainian authorities were receiving continual reports from the US intelligence system that gave them a clear idea of what the Russian armed forces were planning, day to day. This has remained the case throughout the conflict, with the data on Prigozhin’s plans being just the most recent example.

We are now in the position where Putin’s war aims have failed. The Ukrainian government will not be forced from office and the conflict stands every chance of dragging on for many months and quite possibly years. The 14-month violent stalemate continues since NATO will ensure Ukraine cannot lose, but Putin can threaten use of weapons of mass destruction if Russia is losing. It is worth remembering that less than a week after the Russian forces began to get bogged down, Putin delivered a speech warning of just such an escalation.

The key question now is whether Putin is able to ride out the current setback and continue with the war without any threat to his survival. The answer largely depends on what happens next with the Wagner group and Prigozhin, and it is here that there is considerable uncertainty and prospects for sudden change.

Whatever Prigozhin’s personal aims, there is substantial unrest directed at Sergei Shoigu, the minister of defence, and general Valery Gerasimov, army chief of staff. Both stand accused of persistent incompetence in the conduct of the war, and appear to be the main targets for Prigozhin’s criticisms.

However far Prigozhin wanted to go with his mutiny, if these two had been deposed then his popularity with much of the Russian armed forces would have risen. But one of the most significant figures in all of this was actually general Sergei Surovikin. He was the head of Russian forces in Syria before the Ukraine conflict started and had a reputation for brutal efficiency. Quite close to Prigozhin, he was brought in by Putin last year to run the war and appeared to have some success. He was replaced last January, when Gerasimov was put in charge.

As the mutiny got under way, Surovikin put out a surprisingly strong supportive video message for Putin, which was, by implication, critical of Prigozhin. This, and the failure of army units in Russia to join the mutiny, meant that Prigozhin halted the move to Moscow and an uneasy compromise prevails, at least for now. Meanwhile, Surovikin, who may have had advance knowledge of the mutiny, has gone to ground, and as long as he remains out of the public eye there will be suspicions that Putin has sacked or even detained him.

All the uncertainty leads to a common view among Western Kremlin watchers that the past week has seriously weakened Putin’s position, but there is an alternative view, ably put by Anatol Lieven, that it may have done the opposite. He argues that while Putin created the circumstances for the mutiny, in his address to the public while the mutiny was developing, he “made clear that he had no intention of surrendering to Prigozhin’s demands, and that if he and the other Wagner leaders continued their revolt, they would be charged with treason (and, by implication, probably executed)”.

The most recent indications are that Putin is already isolating Prigozhin and Surovikin, while taking time to reassure the oligarchic elite that only he can protect them. Even if hardline Wagner mercenaries relocate to Belarus, they will be easy to track and counter.

As things stand, Putin has emerged stronger. Prigozhin, a seriously gifted self-publicist, only had one shot at achieving greater power and he has failed. That assessment could be wrong, of course, and we will see what happens in the next few days, but beyond the immediate mess, the conflict in Ukraine continues to be the dominant issue.

Paradoxically, Putin remains in power in Russia but it is Biden, as the essential provider of intelligence and other support to Ukraine, who can still go a long way to determining the outcome of the conflict. Given that a Russian defeat would be hugely dangerous because of the escalation risk, Biden may opt for a long-drawn-out conflict that systematically weakens the Russian economy, perhaps over some years.

That certainly fits in with other developments. It will be many months before the much-vaunted F-16s attack aircraft are a significant part of Ukrainian air power, and current training programmes for the Ukrainian military are already planned 18 months ahead. The UK has trained 17,000 Ukrainian soldiers in Western combat practice and its current plan is to train another 20,000 by the end of 2024.

A grim outcome all round is in prospect unless some way can be found for even short-term ceasefires, followed by slow progress towards a settlement. The happenings of the last week do not suggest that such progress is likely, so years of war may still lie ahead. A great future for the armourers but more death and suffering for many.

Source: OpenDemocracy

04 Jul 2023 by Paul Rogers

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