Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot allow the leader of the Wagner Group mercenaries to go freely about Russia following the “extraordinary mutiny” that loosened his grip on power, a former ambassador to the Kremlin said Thursday.
John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow when the Ukrainian invasion was launched, said what Moscow calls a special military operation has relied on “this rogue and undisciplined element” to achieve what few territorial gains Russia made since February 2022.
As for former Wagner Group head Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who news reports says is still in Russia, even if Putin kept his word that the Wagner group leader would not be tried for treason, he could face other charges, Sullivan said. The diplomat didn’t rule out assassination as a means of ending the threat to the regime.
Prigozhin led a column of Wagner fighters to within 125 miles of Moscow before stopping when a deal to drop treason charges and allow him to leave the country was announced. He added the Biden administration has been very careful in saying its support for Ukraine is not another way of promoting regime change in Russia. The administration is also saying it was not involved in the mutiny itself.
“I’m not sure Prigozhin and his cronies in Wagner are an improvement” over Putin, Sullivan said. They “may be worse than what we have now.”
Russia’s “military and security forces have been so inept” in carrying out Putin’s goal of the denazification of Ukraine by toppling its government in Kyiv that he needed Wagner, Sullivan said. Wagner had provided forces to back up Russia’s military and diplomatic efforts in Syria, Libya and nations in the African Sahel. Whether this will continue is unknown since Wagner forces in Ukraine are now required to register with the Russian military or return home.
For the first time, the Kremlin admitted its ties to Wagner. Putin said the government paid Wagner about $1 billion for operations last year.
Putin sees the invasion as part of the struggle between Russia and “the decadent West [which is] in steep decline.” He added also at play from the war’s start is Putin’s “messianic view of himself and Russia.”
That “messianic view” means despite the stalemate it would be “difficult for him to do anything but double down” as the Ukrainians launch a counteroffensive. Putin would never do what President Lyndon Johnson did in the wake of the Tet Offensive in 1968 and choose to step aside, Sullivan said.
Sullivan called the Russian threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine “irrational” and even more so in threatening Poland or other NATO allies with them. The Kremlin had announced it will move nuclear weapons into is ally and neighbor Belarus.
But “it was also irrational to invade Ukraine,” Sullivan said. Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied an attack was imminent until it was launched.
If there were a ceasefire in the future, Sullivan predicted “it would be transitory” because “he will never surrender his goal” of taking Ukraine.
Although its regular forces have performed poorly on the battlefield, Sullivan said, “it would be a mistake to think that the Russian military is a paper tiger.” They have dug in – with extended trenches and minefields to slow the Ukrainians’ advance.
Speaking at a Washington Post online forum, Sullivan said, “it’s too soon to tell how the Ukrainian counteroffensive is going to go” in reclaiming territory lost since 2014 and again in 2022. He added the “the Ukrainians would be in better position this summer” if the Biden administration had moved more quickly to ship advanced weapons to Kyiv.
While the United States “can’t just turn our back on Russia,” Sullivan paraphrasing President Ronald Reagan said, “there’s no trust anymore, just verification” in all negotiations with Moscow.