Within a day, the revolt suddenly ended, however, and only their incredulity remained.
The mercenary leader’s sudden reversal and announcement of a deal with the Kremlin dashed Ukrainian hopes for a government-toppling insurrection. While many in Ukraine believed it left Russia in political and military turmoil that would surely have injured President Vladimir Putin and his government, the unrelenting and existential war remained the focus.
As Prigozhin, who leads the Wagner mercenary group, pushed toward Moscow on Saturday, more than 50 rockets were fired at Ukraine, including one that hit an apartment complex in Kyiv and killed several civilians, according to Ukrainian officials. At the same time, Ukrainian forces routed a series of Russian offensives in the country’s east.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the country's forces had advanced “in all directions" on Monday, although did not attribute the alleged victories to the chaos and uncertainty in Russia.
“Of course whenever an opportunity arises and exposes a vulnerability of the enemy, that opportunity will be used,” Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, said from Kyiv. “But I don’t think it’s helpful for us to look at the events of yesterday as some unique opportunity for anything. For us, it is important to stay focused on our military objectives.”
Ukrainian officials said they viewed these recent events in Russia as a distraction. The country needed to remain focused on its counteroffensive, although some admitted hope that the West might see this as an opportunity to press Moscow further by providing further weapons more quickly and backing Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership next month.
Whatever “the real purpose of this charade,” Ukraine remains focused on its military plans. It is Ukraine’s only clear path to ending the war, Sak said.
The former head of Britain’s army advised Ukrainian officials to take advantage of the disarray and continue “probing attacks along the Russian defensive line” and discover where to deploy highly skilled and Western-trained attack brigades.
“This is a moment of opportunity for the Ukrainians,” Gen. Richard Dannatt told Sky News, though he warned that Kyiv should monitor their northern flank and Prigozhin’s activity in Belarus.
Ukraine’s military did appear to seize on the momentary turmoil created by Prigozhin’s efforts. Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, announced a multipronged attack near Bakhmut, the city that the Wagner mercenary group had helped capture at the cost of thousands of lives.
Prigozhin shook the Russian establishment when he called Russia’s stated reasons for the invasion “lies” by military and government leaders.
But then the former close confidant of Putin suddenly announced the end of Wagner’s march Saturday. Russia said he would be exiled to Belarus and his mercenaries would be moved under the military.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the dramatic events were to Ukraine’s advantage.
Ukraine “continues to move forward with a counteroffensive,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “These are early days, but they haven’t had what they need to be successful. It’s going to unfold over weeks and even months, but this just creates another problem for Putin.”
Wagner seized Russian towns that had become key to the Kremlin’s resupply efforts. The first city the fighters overran, Rostov-on-Don, is home to the Russian army’s southern command headquarters, the nerve center for the invasion of Ukraine and is essential for supply, command and logistics. It is along the route for Russian forces to travel into the Donbas region that has become the center conflict of the war. That it fell so quickly should make Russian military leaders uneasy.
Ryan O’Leary, an American serving as a junior sergeant in the Ukrainian military, said he and his fellow soldiers found the initial revolt “glorious,” and they hoped Rostov-on-Don would fall quickly and damage Russia’s resupply and capabilities in the air.
Shortly after Prigozhin’s retreat, O’Leary said he still expects the situation to benefit his unit on the front lines in the days and weeks ahead, particularly if Russia struggles to bring supplies to bolster its front lines and its officers have to suss out the allegiances of Wagner fighters now under the military’s command.
Further supply and leadership problems will come because of this, O’Leary said, “It’s just a matter of where and how long it takes to kick in.”
What implications this deal might have for the Russian military leadership whom Prigozhin has publicly castigated, particularly Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, and how it could affect the war remains unclear.
That Putin sided with his military leadership will likely put pressure on them to deliver quick results on the battlefield, though achieving that amid the recent public infighting while also accommodating Wagner’s fighters could prove to be a challenge as Ukraine continues to press.
“Prigozhin has been railing against those two for months, yet Putin keeps them in place,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “It makes Putin even more personally responsible for the running of the war.”
Achieving a swift battlefield victory will be a challenge amid the turmoil, said former Ukrainian Vice Defense Minister Leonid Polyakov, who now works for a Kyiv-based think tank advising Zelenskyy. Prigozhin’s revolt could disorient Russian soldiers, from officers on down, and have a drastic impact on their motivation, loyalty and interests, he said.
“Quite likely it will have a positive effect on (the) Ukrainian counteroffensive,” he said.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who led U.S. Central Command before retiring last year, agreed that this was a moment for Ukraine to go all in and take advantage of the disarray. He said it was a tactical opportunity for Ukrainian soldiers on the ground. The Wagner fighters will be getting realigned under Russia’s military leadership and mass confusion could set in.
It was also an illustration of Putin’s weakness, the retired general said, which should be seen as a major strategic event for Ukrainian military leaders to consider.
“He is weaker today than he was 72 hours ago because the key to Putin’s survival is absolute relentless control,” McKenzie said Sunday. “That myth has been punctured and you have that disarray at the top, which I think makes him weak, vulnerable and, I would add, even more dangerous.”
That’s why this moment may not be all good news for Ukraine.
The main concern shared by multiple former military and diplomatic officials is that Putin might be pushed to show strength to rebut this moment of weakness. That once again raises the specter that the Russian president could choose to use a tactical nuclear weapon to quell Ukraine’s counteroffensive and reinforce his strongman image that he has developed since he first came to power in 1999.
The fear that Putin may choose to use that type of weapon was raised again when he announced earlier in June that he would deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus next month.
“Putin’s history and Russian doctrine or philosophy is to escalate to de-escalate,” McKenzie said. “He’s run out of tools to do it in a nonnuclear way. So now, you got to start taking a look at things that could have irreparable consequences.”