Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner private-mercenary group.
REUTERS/Yulia Morozova/File Photo
Ukraine has made advances but at the expense of increased casualties during its counteroffensive.Some officials have criticized Ukraine’s strategy while others have pointed to the slow gains.Wednesday brought a string of good news for Ukraine amid the 3-month-long counteroffensive.
Ukraine is looking at a streak of good fortune on Wednesday amid months of a brutal counteroffensive against Russia that has often been criticized for its slow progress and incremental territorial gains.
First, the Ukrainian Main Directorate of Intelligence, also known as HUR, claimed that Ukrainian forces destroyed a critical Russian S-400 air-defense system near a Crimean village on early Wednesday morning.
That same day, a Russian helicopter pilot defected to Ukraine, landing a Mi-8 AMTSH helicopter at the Ukrainian Poltava military air base.
An official for HUR, the military intelligence agency, told local media that this was the result of a planned six-month operation.
But the most significant turn of events that came Wednesday was the possible death of the Wagner Group leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Russian state media reported that Prigozhin, who recently incited a mutiny against the Russian military, was one of the listed passengers for a plane that crashed in the Tver region outside of Moscow that evening, killing everyone on board.
Russia’s aviation agency claimed that Prigozhin was on board.
Details of the plane crash are not known. Social media channels associated with Wagner claimed that the plane was shot down by an air-defense system.
Prigozhin’s death may not have an immediate impact on the trajectory of Ukraine’s counteroffensive and Russia’s ability to slow down Ukrainian forces, but it could add a deeper rift within Russia.
Angela Stenet, former National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia and author of “Putin’s World,” told PBS that Prigozhin’s death would stamp out one of the few if not only voices from Russia who could criticize Vladimir Putin’s handling of the war.
However, “the military bloggers and the pro-Prigozhin people, they’re going to have a feeding frenzy in the next few weeks, maybe months, criticizing the Kremlin,” Stenet said. “And so that could lead to some greater instability, at least in the short run.”
Ukraine presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on social media that Prigozhin’s death shows Putin’s willingness to act against anyone who is disloyal to him.
“The demonstrative elimination of Prigozhin and the Wagner command two months after the coup attempt is a signal from Putin to Russia’s elites ahead of the 2024 elections. ‘Beware! Disloyalty equals death,'” he wrote.
Since June, Ukraine has been slogging through a counteroffensive to push back Russian forces and sever a so-called land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula that provides a critical supply line.
Unnamed U.S. officials recently told The New York Times that Ukraine should commit most of its troops to cutting off Russian supply lines in southern Ukraine rather than dividing its resources throughout the country’s east and south.
The U.S. intelligence community also forecasted that Ukraine would not be able to reach the city of Melitopol in order to achieve its main objective of destroying the supply line bridge, The Washington Post reported.
Some experts say that the criticism of Ukraine’s strategy is short-sighted.
In response to The New York Times report, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, DC-based think tank, argued that spreading out Ukrainian troops prevents Russian units from “further lateral reinforcements” and the ability to “stiffen URssian resistance in the South.”