Wagner mutiny reveals ‘cracks’ in Russia, says US Secretary of State

Mercenary forces got within 200km of Moscow before halting their advance

Wagner Group fighters prepare to leave downtown Rostov-on-Don on Saturday evening. EPA
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Washington believes the full ramifications of the Wagner Group’s shocking march on Moscow have yet to be felt.

The mutiny ended as abruptly as it started, with Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin ordering his troops to pull back after reaching within 200 kilometres of Moscow.

“It's too soon to tell exactly where this is going to go,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Sunday. “I suspect that this is a moving picture and we haven't seen the last act yet.”

Washington closely monitored events in Russia on Saturday. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were briefed by their national security team, and the US leader reached out to European allies to discuss the situation.

US spy agencies had been tracking potential unrest in Russia for several weeks, according to US media, and had gone as far as to brief leaders about potential unrest in nuclear-armed Russia a full day before the mutiny.

Still, the speed and effectiveness of the Wagner troops' advance startled much of the world.

“What we've seen is extraordinary,” said Mr Blinken. “I think you've seen cracks emerge that weren't there before.”

The Secretary added that Russia’s image had been significantly diminished since its invasion of Ukraine.

“Sixteen months ago, Russian forces were on the doorstep of Kyiv, Ukraine, thinking they're going to take the city in a matter of days, erase the country from the map,” he said. “Now, they have to be focused on defending Moscow, Russia's capital, against mercenaries of Putin’s own making.”

The mutiny comes as Ukraine is in the midst of a highly anticipated counter-offensive. The military is trying to retake ground in several key areas in eastern Donetsk and south-eastern Zaporizhzhia.

Progress has thus far been slow, but Mr Blinken believes Saturday's events could prove helpful.

“I think that creates additional advantages for the Ukrainians to take advantage of,” he said.

Mr Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Sunday to discuss Saturday's events in Russia and the ongoing counter-offensive.

"President Biden reaffirmed unwavering US support, including through continued security, economic, and humanitarian aid," the White House said.

A UN spokesperson said on Sunday that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “has been following with concern the developments in the Russian Federation".

“He is aware of the latest reports regarding steps to de-escalate tensions.

“He urges all concerned to continue to act responsibly and with a view to avoid further tensions,” the spokesperson said.

The Wagner PMC has been Russia's most successful fighting force in Ukraine so far, and the fallout of the mutiny is likely to impact Moscow's war efforts significantly. Fighters who took part in Saturday's uprising have been granted amnesty, while those who did not participate are expected to be allowed to join the Russian army.

“It showed that things are really just in disarray in the Russian military leadership,” Nicholas Lokker, a research assistant at the Centre for a New American Security, who focuses on transatlantic security and Russian foreign policy, said, adding that, in his opinion, it is “not a good time for the future of the Russian war effort”.

Updated: June 26, 2023, 6:20 AM