All eyes on Kremlin's actions against Wagner's mutiny

Analysts say loyalty of Russia's military to government will be critical and the air force key to crushing the mercenary force

A Wagner group tank draws a crown of civilians in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. EPA
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An attempted military coup led by the Wagner group of mercenaries may be under way in Russia, with Moscow rapidly attempting to counter it with troops, analysts have told The National.

An important aspect will be whether Russian military detachments decide to obey Kremlin orders or side with the mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.

The air force will be a big player if it is asked to attack Wagner’s armoured columns across southern Russia.

Unconfirmed reports from military blogs said that an air force Ilyushin transport plane and an Mi-8 helicopter were shot down, possibly by Wagner forces.

“A successful coup usually takes control of the capital and machinery of government,” said Ben Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank.

“So it's not one yet but it's rapidly evolving. It’s a question of where does the balance of loyalty lie? Yes, (Russian President) Putin can call on his additional security forces but if they're not prepared to stand against Wagner and put their lives on the line for the regime, then Wagner won't be stopped.”

Gen Sir Richard Barrons, a retired British Army officer, described the situation as a mutiny rather than a coup and the question was whether Russia’s “securocrats” get behind Wagner.

“There is so much here that has a potentially shattering psychological effect on Russian politics,” he told The National. “I suspect Putin aims to get this settled without much bloodshed and quickly.”

He said Mr Putin would be unlikely to “trade-in” Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu, as demanded by Mr Prigozhin.

Putin loyalty

The Rosgvardia, the 340,000 strong national guard who answer directly to Mr Putin, will be crucial in defending the Kremlin.

“The Rosgvardia was built for this scenarios and is numerically significant and likely loyal to Putin,” an intelligence analyst said. “They’re also well-armed and would put up a lot of resistance, that is in theory.”

He added that the Wagner group was also “laced” with intelligence officers from the FSB and GRU security services, who may frustrate any attempts to seize Moscow.

Brig Barry suggested that in Rostov, the Russian military “hadn't been prepared to fight Wagner, and if they had “Wagner would not still be there”.

He said that Russian soldiers might be afraid of the mercenaries who have a reputation for brutality, as proven during the taking of Bakhmut in Ukraine.

“Wagner has a proven ability to fight that a lot of Russian military doesn't have and they may also to have some sympathy in the armed forces,” he said.

Air strikes

With attacks reported on Russian aircraft, an air campaign may be under way.

The air force will be critical if Russia decides attack Wagner forces, hitting road convoys of armour, lorries and air defence systems that appear to be in the Voronezh region.

“What the Russian Air Force do is going to be pretty critical because if they attack the Wagner convoys then they could probably stop it,” said former British tank commander, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon.

If they do not have the stomach to fire on fellow Russians then Wagner’s estimated 25,000 troops could get to Moscow, he said.

Gen Barrons said that if the senior Russian leadership “cleave to Putin because it’s in their best interests” then there would be no reason not to hit Wagner mutineers by air.

This would be mainly led by Russia’s Ka-52 and Mi-25 Hind attack helicopters although combat jets could also be used.

Ukraine’s chance

While Kyiv’s counter-offensive is still probing Russian lines a weak point, it has still not committed the vast majority of its Nato-equipped armoured brigades.

It remains unclear how much of an impact events in Russia will have but there could be an opportunity.

“If those Russian conscripts on the frontline think there's a coup happening, they might be pretty happy as they don't have much stomach for the fight anyway,” said Mr de Bretton-Gordon.

He suggested that Ukraine would drop leaflets on the frontline urging the soldiers to surrender.

Gen Barrons believed that in the immediate days the unrest would not have a significant impact on the battlefield unless the Ukrainians sensed that “the Russian forces holding the front line were so unsettled by this they'd lost their will to fight”.

Nuclear button

If there is a coup, a concern will be the safe transfer of the codes for Russia’s 4,000 warhead nuclear stockpile.

However, analysts do not believe Mr Putin will attempt to use a nuclear strike as a diversion or for any other reason and a hotline is still in place between Moscow and Washington.

“Pressing the nuclear button would be the last thing on Putin’s mind, as survival is first thing and you wouldn't be surprised if you saw a couple of helicopters heading off to Tehran,” said Mr de Bretton-Gordon.

He claimed that the regime in its “death throes” could still cause a nuclear incident at the Zaporizhzhia power station that it controls in Ukraine.

Gen Barrons said while Nato would watch developments with “great interest” the situation had a “long way to go so we should stay calm to a degree”.

He described the events as “the most significant threat Putin’s faced” during his 24 years in power.

“It will all depend on whether Prigozhin is essentially a lone actor who doesn't attract support from the population or the bulk of the Russian military in which case this is just a mutiny,” he added.

Updated: June 24, 2023, 1:17 PM