The Ukraine Crisis: Situation Update # 24

Foreign Policy Brief #82 | By: Ibrahim Castro | June 30, 2023
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Wagner’s Mutiny

On June 24, 2023 the Wagner group led by hot dog sales-man turned warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, led an armed revolt against the Russian military. The world watched in shock as an armed rebellion made its way from Ukraine towards Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the action treasonous and vowed punishment for those responsible. The Wagner group is a large, 25,000 member strong, mercenary group created by Prigozhin. It was first identified in 2014, when it started backing pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Wagner forces have since been operating in multiple African and the Middle Eastern countries as a proxy for the Russian military. Although mercenary forces are illegal in Russia, Wagner officially registered as a company in 2022. Most recently the group was heavily involved in the capture of the city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine. 

Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been at odds with Russian military leadership for some time now, threatening to pull Wagner troops out of Ukraine if the military did not take actions suggested by him. Prigozhin has repeatedly accused defense minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of armed forces in Ukraine, Valery Gerasimov, of incompetence. On 23 June, Prigozhin accused top Russian defense officials of bombing Wagner troops in Ukraine. A day later, his troops seized control of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and began their march towards Moscow. The stated aim of their mutiny was removal of the military leadership and not a coup. However, the convoy stopped the advance after negotiations with the Kremlin were mediated by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Ptigozhin agreed to go into exile in Belarus, along with Wagner troops which remain loyal to him. 

It’s unclear what Putin’s next steps will be. The Russian leader is not one known to allow criticism or disloyalty in his ranks, much less an armed mutiny against his own military. Russia’s global image and Putin’s grip on power have certainly dwindled with this most recent event. It is also not certain what Prigozhin will do in the future, as so often throughout history, powerful opposition leaders to authoritarian leaders who are exiled abroad and told to stay out of politics rarely remain so.

Nuclear Weapons in Belarus

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko recently announced that his country has started taking delivery of Russian tactical nuclear weapons. The small Eastern European state of Belarus has had no nuclear weapons on its territory since the early 1990s. Shortly after gaining its independence following the fall of the Soviet Union, it agreed to transfer all weapons of mass destruction to Russia. President Vladimir Putin announced in March that he had agreed to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, pointing to the US deployment of similar weapons in a host of European countries over many decades. On Friday Putin said that Russia, “will retain control of the tactical nuclear weapons,and would start deploying them in Belarus after special storage facilities to house them were made ready”. 

Ukraine Counter Offensive 

Earlier this month, President Zelensky confirmed Ukraine’s long-awaited counter-offensive to recapture areas occupied by Russia had begun. Last week, he acknowledged that the battlefield progress has been slower than desired. Ukrainian forces have, however, reportedly made gains in the previously Russian occupied southern Kherson region, crossing the Dnipro river and establishing a foothold there. With the Kremlin occupied with the fallout of last week’s mutiny, it may be difficult for them to fight both internal and external battles, and provide a window for Ukraine to retake its territory from the invading army.

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