West after Wagner rebellion: Talk softly and help Ukraine carry a bigger stick

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 potential involvement of Western spies in the rebellion.

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. Kyiv is still operating with a strategy of attrition 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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You’re up, Joe: Europe awaits Biden’s nod on next NATO chief

Europe is waiting for white smoke from Washington. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will visit the White House on Tuesday, part of a trip that could determine whether he stays on at the helm of the Western military alliance or if the U.S. will back a new candidate. 

For months now, Europe has been locked in an endless parlor game over who might replace Stoltenberg, who is slated to leave his already-extended term in September after nearly 10 years at the helm.

Candidates have risen, fallen and risen again, while some desired successors have repeatedly proclaimed themselves not interested. Diplomats at NATO headquarters in Brussels will put forth one theory, only to offer a different one in the next sentence.

Throughout it all, the U.S. has stayed noticeably mum on the subject, merely indicating President Joe Biden hasn’t settled on a candidate and effusively praising Stoltenberg’s work. Yet Biden can’t sit on the fence forever. While the NATO chief is technically chosen by consensus, the White House’s endorsement carries heavy weight.

The foot-dragging has left NATO in limbo: while some members say it’s high time for a fresh face, the NATO job — traditionally reserved for a European — has become highly sensitive. There are few senior European leaders who are both available and can win the backing of all 31 alliance members for the high-profile post. 

The result is that all eyes have turned to Washington as the clock ticks down to NATO’s annual summit in July — a sort of deadline for the alliance to make a decision on its next (or extended) leader. 

“I would not be 100 percent sure that the list is closed,” said one senior diplomat from Central Europe, who like others was granted anonymity to discuss alliance dynamics. “There might be,” the diplomat added, “a last-minute extension initiative.”  

Shadow contest

Diplomats are divided on what will happen in the NATO leadership sweepstakes. 

While many candidates still insist they are not in the running — and Stoltenberg has repeatedly said he plans to go home to Norway, where he was prime minister — all options appear to remain on the table.  

In recent days, the two possible contenders mentioned most often in diplomatic circles are Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace.

Frederiksen met with Biden at the White House last week, turbocharging speculation about her future. As a female leader from a European Union country that is a strong Ukraine supporter but not a full-on hawk, the Danish leader checks off many boxes for some of the alliance’s most influential members. 

Yet speaking to reporters in Washington, she insisted, “I am not a candidate for any other job than the one I have now, and this has not changed after my meeting with the U.S. president.” 

In NATO circles, however, the narrative is different. Four European diplomats said Frederiksen’s name is still circulating as a serious contender for the post. 

Still, Frederiksen faces challenges: Denmark already had the top NATO job less than a decade ago. And not everyone is totally enthusiastic. 

“The Turks might want to block the Danish candidate,” said the senior Central European diplomat. “There is some distance to this idea (not to Frederiksen personally) also elsewhere in the east and in the south, and some of those countries might even join a potential blockade.”

Turkey summoned the Danish envoy in Ankara earlier this year after a far-right group burned a Quran and Turkish flag in Copenhagen. More broadly, the Turkish government has taken issue with a number of northern European countries and is still blocking Sweden’s NATO accession bid.

Asked about possible opposition to the Danish leader from Ankara, however, a Turkish official said: “It is gossip, period. We have never been asked about her candidacy!”

Britain’s Wallace, on the other hand, has openly expressed interest in the NATO job. 

But he faces an uphill battle. Many allies would prefer to see a former head of government in the role. And some EU capitals have signaled they would oppose a non-EU candidate. 

Asked last week if it’s time for a British secretary-general, Biden was lukewarm. 

“Maybe. That remains to be seen,” the president said. “We’re going to have to get a consensus within NATO to see that happen. They have a candidate who’s a very qualified individual. But we’re going to have — we have a lot of discussion, not between us, but in NATO, to determine what the outcome of that will be.” 

A number of other names — including Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and Spanish leader Pedro Sánchez — are still occasionally mentioned, although less frequently. Sánchez, for his part, could soon be in the market for a new job as he faces a tough election in July. 

Some diplomats simply aren’t crazy about any of the leading options.

“I don’t feel it,” said a senior NATO diplomat, also speaking anonymously to discuss internal deliberations. The diplomat argued the “most likely” scenario is yet another short extension for Stoltenberg and a need to then “refresh” the list of candidates. 

The senior diplomat from Central Europe argued that “the EU core” — some of the bloc’s most influential capitals — might be in favor of an extension that would sync up the NATO chief talks with the EU’s upcoming leadership reshuffle after the EU’s June 2024 elections. Combining the two could open the door to more political horse trading. 

But asked last month about his future, Stoltenberg said: “I have made it clear that I have no other plans than to leave this fall. I will already have been almost twice as long as originally planned.”

Others insisted they remained upbeat about the names on the table. 

Both Frederiksen and Wallace, said one senior northern European diplomat, “seem well qualified.” 

A senior diplomat from Eastern Europe bet on a new NATO chief soon. 

“I think,” the diplomat said, “we are moving closer to the replacement than extension.”

Eli Stokols contributed reporting.



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