A former British ambassador to Russia has questioned why Russia’s response to Wagner’s rebellion was so ‘weak’ but he does not believe Vladimir Putin will leave power ‘anytime soon’.
Laurie Bristow, who served as a British diplomat in Russia from 2016 to 2020, also said that he was struggling to make sense of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, which fell apart at the 11th hour.
Prigozhin’s private mercenary group had vowed to ‘destroy anyone who stands in our way’ on their way to Russia’s capital from Rostov-on-Don – a key Russian city in the war which they were able to easily occupy.
But the humiliated Wagner boss pulled out of what many branded as an attempted coup, saying he wished to avoid spilling Russian blood.
As the former prisoner flees to Belarus in return for having rebellion charges dropped against him, Mr Bristow claimed that there are ‘many more steps of the drama to unfold’.
Laurie Bristow, British ambassador in Russia from 2016 to 2020, has questioned why Russia’s response to Wagner’s rebellion was so ‘weak’ but he does not believe Vladimir Putin will leave power ‘anytime soon’
He also said that he was struggling to make sense of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, which fell apart at the 11th hour. Pictured: Prigozhin leaves Moscow for Belarus last night
Vladimir Putin’s presidency was under threat as Wagner descended on Moscow but the private mercenary group pulled out after a deal was struck
Speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning, Mr Bristow, who was also ambassador in Afghanistan between June and November 2021 when Kabul fell – said: ‘I think we are in a very complex situation here.
‘There are almost certainly several more acts of this drama to play out. One of the things we are all struggling with is to make sense of what happened in the last 24 hours. There are so many things we don’t know.
‘We don’t know what Prigozhin was trying to achieve. We do not understand fully why the Russian response was so weak, allowing him to take Rostov – the key city to the war in Ukraine. We don’t know why it was resolved so quickly.
‘A day ago, Putin was accusing Prigozhin of treason, by the end the day all charges were dropped. We don’t know the nature of how the deal was done, how it came to be done we don’t really know what happens next.’
Under the deal announced by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Prigozhin will go to neighbouring Belarus, which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Charges against him of mounting an armed rebellion will be dropped.
The government also said it would not prosecute Wagner fighters who took part, while those who did not join in were to be offered contracts by the Defence Ministry.
Prigozhin ordered his troops back to their field camps in Ukraine, where they have been fighting alongside Russian regular soldiers.
Although the last two days have been somewhat humiliating for both Putin and Prigozhin, Mr Bristow does not believe there is an immediate threat to the Russian president’s power.
Wagner Group servicemen prepare to leave downtown Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia, 24 June 2023
People gathered to bid farewell to Prigozhin, with people reaching through his car window to shake the exiled leader’s hand and take selfies with him
The chief of the rebel Wagner mercenary force Yevgeny Prigozhin (pictured Saturday) will go to Belarus and will not face charges after calling off his troops’ advance on Moscow, the Russian government said, easing the country’s most serious security crisis in decades
‘I don’t think we should get ahead of ourselves and assume from the events of the last 24 hours that Mr Putin will be leaving power anytime soon,’ he said.
‘There’s also a very important point about being careful in the West what we say about that. The G7 leader’s statement was very restrained, very carefully calibrated to underlie our continued support for Ukraine in fighting off Russia’s aggression but not falling into the trap of essentially doing Russian propagandas work for it and allowing them to say the West is interfering here in Russia’s internal affairs.
‘This is a Russia crisis made in Russia by the failures of the Russian leadership.’
But analysts at the Institute for War allege the apparent truce with Wagner forces is a ‘short-term fix, not a long-term solution’.
They argued: ‘The rebellion exposed the weakness of the Russian security forces and demonstrated Putin’s inability to use his forces in a timely manner to repel an internal threat and further eroded his monopoly on force.
‘Prigozhin’s rapid drive towards Moscow ridiculed much of the Russian regular forces – and highlighted to any and all security figures, state-owned enterprises, and other key figures in the Russian government that private military forces separate from the central state can achieve impressive results.
‘Wagner’s drive also showcased the degradation of Russia’s military reserves, which are almost entirely committed to fighting in Ukraine, as well as the dangers of reliance on inexperienced conscripts to defend Russia’s borders.’
The analysts noted how the Kremlin failed to ‘respond quickly’ and that in some cases Wagner fighters were ‘warmly greeted’ by Rostov-on-Don residents.
Mr Bristow said that Putin allowed the dispute between Wagner and Russia’s defence ministry to go on far too long. ‘[Wagner] was encouraged and allowed to be built up to essentially to help do the Kremlins dirty work for it,’ he added.
Onlookers clapped and cheered ‘Wagner’ as the troops were told to depart from Rostov by their leaders
Tanks were hauled out of the southern city of Rostov as Prigozhin’s forces retreated from Rostov
‘That turned into a struggle for resources and power with defence ministry. Putin allowed it to run on too long. He quite often avoids difficult decisions involving his underlings.
‘That then turned into direct criticism from Prigozhin of the very basis of the war. That’s coming very close to criticizing Putin himself.
‘What we are seeing playing out is the consequences of successive strategic failures by the Russian state and Russian leadership but also the nature of the Russian state itself, starting to produce the results of those failures.’
As Russia tries to regain control following a whirlwind 24 hours, Mr Bristow believes that Putin will feel like he must now declare some form of victory in the war on Ukraine.
He added: ‘The impact on the morale of the army and capabilities of army of what just happened will play out in coming days.
‘One thing we are absolutely certain to see in coming weeks and months is deepening of already profound repression in Russia itself as the Kremlin and people around it try to regain control over the situation and set narrative in Russia itself.’
By Sunday morning there were still no reports of Prigozhin arriving in Belarus. Many other questions remained unanswered, including whether he would be joined in exile by any of Wagner’s troops and what role, if any, he might have there.
Prigozhin, who sent out a series of audio and video updates during his revolt, has gone silent since the Kremlin announced the deal had been brokered for him to end his march and leave Russia.
Video posted on Russian messaging app channels from Rostov-on-Don showed people cheering Wagner troops as they departed. Some ran to shake hands with Prigozhin. The regional governor later said all of the troops had left the city.
Putin had vowed earlier to punish those behind the armed uprising led by his former protege. In a televised speech to the nation, he called the rebellion a ‘betrayal’ and ‘treason’.
A man holds the Russian national flag in front of a Wagner group military vehicle with the sign read as “Rostov” in Rostov-on-Don late on June 24, 2023
Ukrainian soldiers fire towards Russian positions on the frontline in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine on Saturday
The war rages on: Kyiv’s Mayor Vitali Klitschko talks with local residents next to a 24-storey building partially destroyed following a Russian missiles strike in Kyiv early on June 24
In allowing Prigozhin and his forces to go free, Mr Peskov said, Putin’s ‘highest goal’ was ‘to avoid bloodshed and internal confrontation with unpredictable results’.
The risk for Mr Putin is whether he will be seen as weak, analysts said.
‘Putin has been diminished for all time by this affair,’ former US ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said on CNN.
Moscow had braced for the arrival of the Wagner forces by erecting checkpoints with armoured vehicles and troops on the city’s southern edge. About 3,000 Chechen soldiers were pulled from fighting in Ukraine and rushed there early on Saturday, state television in Chechnya reported. Crews dug up sections of roads to slow the march.
Wagner troops advanced to just 120 miles from Moscow, according to Prigozhin. But after the deal was struck, he announced that he had decided to retreat to avoid ‘shedding Russian blood’.
On Sunday morning some restrictions were still in place along the main highway between Moscow and Rostov-on-Don, though traffic restrictions were gradually being lifted in other places.
Prigozhin had demanded the ousting of defence minister Sergei Shoigu, whom he has long criticised in withering terms for his conduct of the 16-month war in Ukraine.
If Putin were to agree to that move, it could be politically damaging for the president after he branded Prigozhin a backstabbing traitor.
The US had intelligence that Prigozhin had been building up his forces near the border with Russia for some time. That conflicts with Prigozhin’s claim that his rebellion was a response to an attack on his camps in Ukraine on Friday by the Russian military.
Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to base, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24
In this image from video, a man sits atop an armoured vehicle in the street as residents of the southern Russian city talk with military personnel on Saturday, June 24
US Congressional leaders were briefed on the Wagner build-up earlier last week, a person familiar with the matter said
In announcing the rebellion, Prigozhin accused Russian forces of targeting the Wagner camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships and artillery. He alleged that Gen Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, ordered the attacks following a meeting with Mr Shoigu in which they decided to destroy the military contractor.
The Defence Ministry denied attacking the camps.
US Congressional leaders were briefed on the Wagner build-up earlier last week, a person familiar with the matter said.
A possible motivation for Prigozhin’s rebellion was the Russian Defence Ministry’s demand, which Mr Putin backed, that private companies sign contracts with it by July 1.Prigozhin had refused to do it.
‘It may well be that he struck now because he saw that deadline as a danger to his control of his troops,’ Mr Herbst wrote in an article for the Atlantic Council.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians hoped the Russian infighting would create opportunities for their army to take back territory seized by Russian forces.
‘These events will have been of great comfort to the Ukrainian government and the military,’ said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He said that even with a deal, Mr Putin’s position has probably been weakened.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late on Saturday, shortly before Prigozhin announced his retreat, that the march exposed weakness in the Kremlin and ‘showed all Russian bandits, mercenaries, oligarchs’ that it is easy to capture Russian cities ‘and, probably, arsenals’.
Wagner troops have played a crucial role in the Ukraine war, capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut, an area where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place. But Prigozhin has increasingly criticised the military brass, accusing it of incompetence and of starving his troops of munitions.