As the United States and its European allies work to make sense of last weekend’s chaos in the Kremlin, they’re urging Kyiv to seize a “window” of opportunity that could help its counteroffensive push through Russian positions.
The forming response: Transatlantic allies are hoping, largely by keeping silent, to de-escalate the immediate political crisis while quietly pushing Ukraine to strike a devastating blow against Russia on the battlefield. It’s best to hit an enemy while it’s down, and Kyiv would be hard-pressed to find a more wounded Russia, militarily and politically, than it is right now.
In public, American and European leaders stressed that they are preparing for any outcome, as it still remained unclear where the mercenary rebellion would ultimately lead. Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led the revolt, resurfaced on Monday, claiming he had merely wanted to protest, not topple the Russian government — while simultaneously insisting his paramilitary force would remain operational.
“It’s still too early to reach a definitive conclusion about where this is going,” U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday afternoon. “The overall outcome of this remains to be seen.”
For the moment, European officials see no greater threat to the Continent even as they watch for signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two-decade hold on power might be slipping.
Western allies attribute the relative calm to how they managed Prigozhin’s 24-hour tantrum.
During the fighting, senior Biden administration figures and their European counterparts agreed on calls that they should remain “silent” and “neutral” about the mutiny, said three U.S. and European officials, who like others were granted anonymity to discuss fast-moving and sensitive deliberations.
In Monday’s meeting of top EU diplomats in Luxembourg, officials from multiple countries acted with a little-to-see-here attitude. No one wanted to give the Kremlin an opening to claim Washington and its friends were behind the Wagner Group’s targeting of senior Russian military officials.
“We made clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it,” Biden said from the White House Monday, relaying the transatlantic message. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled on Monday that his regime would still look into the.
The broader question is how, or even if, the unprecedented moment could reverse Ukraine’s fortunes as its counteroffensive stalls.
The U.S. and some European nations have urged Ukraine for weeks to move faster and harder on the front lines. The criticism is that Kyiv has acted too cautiously, waiting for perfect weather conditions and other factors to align before striking Russia’s dug-in fortifications.
Now, with Moscow’s political and military weaknesses laid bare, there’s a “window” for Ukraine to push through the first defensive positions, a U.S. official said. Others in the U.S. and Europe assess that Russian troops might lay down their arms if Ukraine gets the upper hand while command and control problems from the Kremlin persist.
“Russia does not appear to have the uncommitted ground forces needed to counter the multiple threats it is now facing from Ukraine, which extend over 200 kilometers [124 miles] from Bakhmut to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River,” U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in the House of Commons Monday.
Ukrainian officials say there’s no purposeful delay on their part. Russia’s air power, literal minefields and bad weather have impeded Kyiv’s advances, they insist, conceding that they do wish they could move faster.
“We’re still moving forward in different parts of the front line,” Yuri Sak, an adviser to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, said in an interview.
“Earlier it was not possible to assess the solidity of the Russian defenses,” Sak added. “Only now that we are doing active probing operations, we get a better picture. The obtained information will be factored into the next stages of our offensive operations.”
Analysts have long warned that, despite the training Ukrainian forces have received from Western militaries, it was unlikely that they would fight just like a NATO force.despite recent drills on combined-arms operations, maneuver warfare and longer-range precision fires.
During Monday’s gathering of top EU diplomats, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said now was the time to pump more artillery systems and missiles into Kyiv’s arsenal, place more sanctions on Russia and speed up the training of Ukrainian pilots on advanced fighter jets.
“Together, all these steps will allow the liberation of all Ukrainian territories,” he asserted.
In the meantime, European officials will keep an eye on Russia as they consider NATO’s own security.
“I think that nobody has yet understood what is going on in Russia — frankly I have a feeling also that the leadership in Moscow has no clue what is going on in their own country,” quipped Latvia’s Foreign Minister and President-elect Edgars Rinkēvičs in a phone interview on Monday afternoon.
“We are prepared, as we always would be, for a range of scenarios,” U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters Monday.
NATO allies will continue to watch for whether Russia starts to crumble or if the autocrat atop the Kremlin can hold his nation together with spit and tape.
“The question is how Putin will now react to his public humiliation. His reaction — to save his face and reestablish his authority — may well be a further crackdown on any domestic dissent and an intensified war effort in Ukraine,” said a Central European defense official. The official added that there’s no belief Putin will reach for a nuclear option during the greatest threat to his rule in two decades.
In the meantime, an Eastern European senior diplomat said, “we will increase monitoring, possibly our national vigilance and intelligence efforts. Additional border protection measures might be feasible. We need more allied forces in place.”
Alexander Ward reported from Washington. Lili Bayer reported from Brussels. Suzanne Lynch reported from Luxembourg. Cristina Gallardo reported from London.
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