The European Union officials have warned that Russia has become more dangerous following last weekend’s short-lived mutiny by the country’s Wagner mercenary force which had exposed that President Vladimir Putin was politically weaker than previously thought.
Attending an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, senior officials reiterated that the recent chaos in Russia – where the mercenary force came within 200km of Moscow (125 miles) on Saturday – was an internal matter in which their governments played no role, but a weakened Putin was a concern for Europe.
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“A weaker Putin is a greater danger,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said as he arrived for the meeting on Thursday.
“Putin has lost the monopoly of force,” Borrell said, adding that he expected that Putin “will be in cleaning mode internally, and a more assertive mode” following the threat to his power exposed by the mutiny of Wagner fighters.
Borrell said EU member states intelligence services were analysing scenarios as “now we have to look at Russia as a risk because of the internal instability”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that while it was “too early” to draw conclusions regarding the effects of recent events, Wagner’s weekend mutiny revealed “cracks and divisions” in Russia.
“The mutiny we saw at the weekend demonstrates that there are cracks and divisions within the Russian system. At the same time, it is important to underline that these are internal Russian matters,” Stoltenberg said.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that “a regime change in Russia” was not a goal.
However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who addressed Thursday’s EU summit by video link, had a blunt message for those who claimed that a weakened Putin would make him more unpredictable and dangerous.
“We are seeing their weakness, which we so badly need,” Zelenskyy said.
“The weaker Russia is, and the more its bosses fear mutinies and uprisings, the more they will fear to irritate us. Russia’s weakness will make it safe for others, and its defeat will solve the problem of this war,” he said.
‘Showed deep cracks in Putin’s system’
EU leaders agreed that Putin had suffered a blow to his authority from the Wagner affair.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, one of several EU nations bordering Russia, insisted the chaos from the Wagner mutiny was all the more reason to take a robust posture towards Putin.
Some say “that a strong Putin is less dangerous than a weak Putin. I don’t agree with that. We have to move forward and be decisive because now is a crucial moment of history”, Nauseda said.
“This showed deep cracks in Putin’s system. This mutiny of last weekend will also have aftershocks that we will see,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Officials from several member states and EU institutions said the chaos and instability created by the rebellion would not only force the EU to double down on its support for Ukraine with commitments for more ammunition but also to ensure fighting and violence do not spill over into the EU bloc itself after Wagner forces were allowed to leave Russia for neighbouring Belarus.
“There is no room for hesitation,” said Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. “We must continue to increase the price of Russian aggression.”
Many EU nations are also members of NATO, and at NATO’s July 11-12 summit, they will look to offer Ukraine more security guarantees, if stopping short of full NATO membership.
That approach for more support is expected to be fully endorsed by the time the two-day summit ends.
As Putin has moved to reassert control since the Wagner uprising, the Kremlin has remained silent over the conspicuous absence of the deputy commander of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine and other senior Russian military figures.
Russia’s missing general
Speculation about General Sergei Surovikin has been growing since he fell out of public view after the aborted weekend revolt by Wagner fighters and amid reports that he was sympathetic to the mercenary force’s objectives.
While several media outlets have claimed that Surovikin has been arrested, the general’s whereabouts were a matter for the defence ministry, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Russian news agency Interfax on Thursday.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, DC-based think tank, said on Thursday that Peskov’s response to questions regarding the missing general was insightful.
“Peskov could have denied ongoing speculations about Surovikin if there were no investigation of him,” the ISW said.
“Peskov’s refusal suggests that Russian officials may be investigating Surovikin since Russian officials usually refuse to comment on ongoing investigations,” it said.
The ISW also noted that Russian sources have given conflicting accounts of what may have happened to Surovikin, including that he was questioned by the security services over links to Wagner and has since been released.
#Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to address Army General Sergei #Surovikin’s whereabouts on June 29, prompting more speculations in the Russian information space. https://t.co/N68gnBsZSt https://t.co/USgXEoQHG8 pic.twitter.com/Jp6RWBGqLO
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) June 30, 2023
“It would be logical for Russian officials to question Surovikin or any other military officials with ties to Prigozhin after Wagner’s armed rebellion,” the think tank said.
Asked whether Putin continued to trust Surovikin, Peskov said only that the president was working with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov.
Surovikin is considered an ally of Prigozhin but sided with the powers that were in Moscow during the Saturday march by Wagner forces towards Moscow.
Prigozhin said his move on Moscow was to overthrow senior military leaders. He has long accused Defence Minister Shoigu and General Gerasimov of incompetence and blamed them for the multitude of battlefield failures Russian forces have suffered in Ukraine.