On Saturday, Ukrainian forces attacked Bachmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries had taken after months of intense fighting this spring. Prigozhin owes his name and fame to it during the Russian war in Ukraine: the destroyed Bachmut is the only city that Russia captured this year. But while Prigozhin and his army rocked Russia this weekend, Ukraine went on the offensive at Bachmut.
The Russian Defense Ministry wrote on Telegram that the Ukrainian armed forces, taking advantage of the “disorganization caused by Prigozhin”, are trying to break through the front line at Bachmut. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar announced on Saturday through the same medium that Ukraine had launched an offensive in several directions, including Bachmoet.
Was Kyiv indeed responding to events in Russia? No, says Roman Svitan. “You don’t come up with such attacks in a day. This requires a longer preparation time.”
The military expert and reserve colonel of the Ukrainian armed forces sees that Russia is weakened from recent events with a “wounded” armed force. “This is a bonus for Ukraine.” Think of it like a tennis match, he says, in which a player gets injured but can still play.
He does not expect any changes for the battle on the Ukrainian front. Ukraine, on a counter-offensive, will not change its plans, he thinks.
Svitan sees the events in Russia in recent days as a great advantage for Ukraine. “Everything Prigozhin has done is useful for Ukraine.” He sums up what struck him: Prigozhin showed that the Russian army is indecisive, he showed that Vladimir Putin has no control over his troops, he showed that Russia does not have its own defenses in order at home and he showed that the Russian army has no combat capabilities. “They cannot fight on their own territory. Let alone that they can do that in Ukraine or in the world. This is useful information for Kyiv. The Russian Federation is weak and in the long run this means the end of the Russian Empire. We must therefore continue to fight.”
The time to attack
This weakness does not necessarily mean that Ukraine will immediately change its counter-offensive plans, Svitan thinks. Ukraine is still fighting against an imperial army of 300,000 men on Ukrainian territory, he says on the phone from Ukraine. In addition, offensive plans are preceded by months of preparation if you look at the soldiers and combat equipment you need for it. “Then you cannot change your plans in a second.”
Yet now is the time to attack Russia. The Ukrainian armed forces can now increase the domestic chaos in Russia, says Svitan. You can increase the number of missile attacks, he thinks. Such as on strategic bridges in Russia or on the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014 under Putin.
Creating additional chaos is currently an option for Ukraine, says Ukrainian military journalist Yuri Butusov. And certainly with attacks on Crimea. That is a sensitive matter for Putin. “Any pressure on Crimea is very painful for Russia. Crimea is a target of Putin. For him a symbol of the Russian Empire. He wants to impress. Every Ukrainian missile strike shows that the Russian president cannot control Crimea.”
First step towards a catastrophe
Butusov also does not expect any changes in Ukrainian action at the front. “Russia has a great advantage in the amount of people and weapons. They have enough supplies to continue this war. We will have to keep fighting against that.”
The current situation in Russia is even due to Ukraine, Butusov notes. Russia thought it would bring Ukraine to its knees in three days. If successful, it would almost certainly have made Putin unapproachable. Instead, the Ukrainian armed forces fought back and numerous external and internal problems are facing the Russian president. “Ukraine is putting Russia in trouble. That only makes us stronger. They dreamed of conquering Kyiv in three days. Now they are in a war that will last for years. It is a great disaster for the Kremlin. This rebellion is a first step towards a catastrophe for Russia.”
Kyiv sees that too. Volodymyr Zelensky concluded on Saturday that Russia is coming out of these days weakened, caused by Ukraine. “The longer Russia keeps its troops and mercenaries on our soil, the more chaos, pain and trouble it will bring itself,” the Ukrainian president wrote on his Telegram channel on Saturday. “All our commanders, all our soldiers know what to do.”
Ukraine, Butusov thinks, is motivated by events. “Politically and informationally these days were a disaster for Russia.” Ukraine sees a weak state with problems, he explains. And Ukraine saw images of Russian army helicopters being shot down by the Wagner army.
Wagner is not gone
What remains with Svitan of the past few days is a divided Russia. Ukraine can use that. Images appeared on social media of Russians supporting Prigozhin and jeering at the police in Rostov-on-Don, where the Wagner army had taken over a military headquarters. The ultimate Ukrainian goal is the end of the Russian Empire, says Svitan.
Kyiv can give an extra push to this in addition to the current battle. Set up separate battalions with Russian prisoners of war for the Russian republics of Tatarstan, Bashkiria, if necessary one for Moscow, the reserve colonel explains, in order to undermine the Kremlin. Just as there is now a Legion for the Freedom of Russia that carried out an armed attack on Russian territory this spring.
Russia may be weakened according to the two experts and Zelensky, Ukraine still has a formidable opponent: Prigozhin’s fighters who conquered Bachmut. Ukraine is not finished with Wagner, think Svitan and Butusov. Prigozhin halted his advance towards Moscow after speaking to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The agreement would now include that Prigozhin be exiled to Belarus. His Wagner men stay behind. Butusov: “They will return to the front in Ukraine.”