Indrek Kannik: Wagner Group movements no major cause for alarm

Indrek Kannik.
Indrek Kannik. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The greatest potential change in the frontline in the Ukraine war lies on the Southern Front, according to one expert, and a breakthrough may be viable in the fall.

At the same time, movements of members of the notorious Wagner Group of mercenaries within Belarus are not cause for major concern at this point, Indrek Kannik, director of think tank the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS), says.

Kannik said he also agrees with the assessments of other experts that the movement of Wager Group mercenaries within Belarus, which borders with the EU, does not pose a serious military threat. "If the numbers are as they are being reported right now - about a hundred people - then of course this is not a serious military threat for either Poland or Lithuania," Kannik told Vikerradio's "Uudis+" program  Monday.

Kannik: Stand-off with NATO member state last thing Kremlin needs right now

Moreover, Kannik said he believes that the last thing Russia needs right now is a stand-off with a NATO member state. 

"They don't have sufficient resources to wage a war in Ukraine as it is. If they also started a conflict with another country, then the situation would become very difficult for them," Kannik said.

Kannik added that as of now, Wagner members have not been able to transfer to Belarus the equipment they had had at their disposal in the Rostov region, in Russia, and the Luhansk region, in occupied Ukraine, prior to June's uprising.

This was to be expected, Kannik added.

"First of all, President Putin could not sit still for this heavy equipment to have remained in Wagner's hands while they were moving through Russia, including quite close to the Moscow region."

"Belarusian leader [Alexander] Lukashenko would also in no way want such heavy equipment units, which he would have no actual control over, to arrive in Belarusian territory. So, in this sense, it is in the interest of both the Russian and Belarusian leaderships that these units do not represent too strong a military presence at the moment," Kannik went on.

Since last fall, when Russia lost control of parts of the Kharkiv oblast, and the Kherson oblast, on the west bank of the Dnipro River, Russia has been at least theoretically prepared for an armistice, Kannik said, "on the condition that [Russia] gets to retain the territories that are currently in its hands," he said.

"Naturally, this would not satisfy Ukraine. Even in comparison with February 24, 2022, they have lost important territories in both the Luhansk and Kherson regions. Russia knows full well that this would not satisfy Ukraine," Kannik said . 

In effect this is propaganda for domestic consumption rather than by the West, he added.

Ukraine making progress in the South

As to the situation on the ground right now, Ukraine has been knocking out around 20-30 Russian artillery systems every day, Kannik said "These are substantial numbers. In addition, ammunition depots are also systematically being nullified. All of this has been noticeable. Claims have already been made that Russian artillery fire has become weaker on the southern front," Kannik added.

"This is the most important prerequisite for moving forward at all. Given that there are also minefields [in the Russian-occupied areas] - clearing minefields under artillery fire is virtually a hopeless operation and would lead to very high casualties. If you can silence the artillery fire, then you can also then clear the minefields and move forward," Kannik said.

"Ukraine was in a similar situation last summer and autumn, on the west bank of the Dnipro. There, a relatively small area was liberated in three months, using the same tactics. Currently, they are operating across a much larger area, whose logistics cannot be totally annihilated, since the land border with Russia is intact."

"This means it is a highly complex process. Those who hoped for success from there very quickly were naive," Kannik found. 

"However, I think that Ukraine is on track. There are still three months to go in southern Ukraine before the real autumn or winter arrives there," Kannik said. 

The forecast that before the end of October, Ukraine will certainly break through on this southern front, which would spell a very critical situation for the Russian troops there.

Not clear what will happen with Wagner Group

Kannik added that there is no very clear news right now about Wagner's activities and movements. "However, this probably represents an intermediate stage in their activities. Again, no country's leadership wants a bunch of fairly well-trained cutthroats to be lying idle on its territory. This would sooner or later lead to some major conflicts, either with the Belarusian military or the civilian population in that country," he said.

One option might be for the Wagner units to be deployed to Africa later this year, or elsewhere in the developing world where Russia feels it needs to protect it interests. 

Another option is to wait for the opportunity to integrate them into the regular Russian military, he added, but in units of a few hundred, rather than five to ten thousand, as is currently the case.

The specter of Wagner mercenaries interfering in EU countries affairs, perhaps resurrecting the Belarus-induced migrant crisis of summer 2021, is one which the Poles themselves have referenced, Kannik added.

Russia is also attempting to apply psychological pressure, via its ally, Belarus, the expert went on.

"Therefore, at least at this stage, I would not overemphasize this matter. We have no cause to be overly nervous," he said.

Nonetheless, there is still reason to remain vigilant, he added, particularly in respect of the "Suwalki gap", also known as the Suwalki Corridor, a less-than 100km stretch of intra-EU border (between Poland and Lithuania), in turn sandwiched on either side by the Russian Federation (via the Kaliningrad exclave, to the West) and Belarus, to the East.

"If five thousand people were moved to the Suwalki area already, then that would constitute a theoretical military threat," Kannik said, adding that "this would still be an insufficient number to deal with the Polish armed forces."

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki held a press conference over the weekend following intelligence reports that Wagner units were moving towards the Suwalki gap. 

Kannik rejected Putin's claims of, conversely, Poland's designs on the West of Ukraine as an "old idea, mentioned as long ago as 2008 but not something which Poland itself – one of the countries contributing most to aiding Ukraine – would be interested in.

"This is a crazy propagandist thesis that it does not make sense to devote any more time to;" Kannik put it.

Good that war being felt in Moscow, following drone strikes

As noted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday night the war is now moving to Russian territory, as evidenced by the several drone strikes Moscow was hit by last week, although this on its own will not affect Russian strategy, he said.

More pertinent would be if incidents like this influenced public opinion, and doves, or at least non-hawks, among Russia's elite.

"I believe that within the Russian elite, the doubts surrounding this war are quite big. Not about the war as such. If it were possible to win, to achieve definite success, they would almost all be fully behind it," Kannik said.

"A sufficient number of them will understand that this victory will not come. Then the question arises, how to retreat from it with as few losses as possible," he went on.

If people see that the war is not just on the TV somewhere in Donetsk and Kharkiv, but will reach Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, and has already reached Rostov and, to a certain extent, Moscow, then so much the better, the expert added.

Three key progress points in the South

Regardless of what happens with Western support for Ukraine, the front-line will likely remain static for the rest of the year, Kannik said – although there might then be the danger that some voices in the West will call for Ukraine and Russia to sit down at the negotiating table, even as "all the [previous] agreements with the Russians have been revealed to be not really valid."

Most scope for change lies on the Southern front, he went on, most notably the Vuhledar direction, is a little west of Vuhledar, Donetsk oblast. Staromaiors'ke village was recently recaptured in that area.

The front's middle section could move, from a Ukrainian perspective, towards Berdyans'k, Zaporizhzhia oblast, and less likely, towards Mariupol, or even, theoretically, towards Melitopol, Kannik said.

To the West, where the Dnipro River takes a bend in that direction, Ukraine has also made progress, at Vasylivka,

"Therefore, a continuous advance has taken place in three areas. In the course of this, Ukraine has done a stellar job over the last few months both with the destruction of Russian artillery systems and, on the other hand, with the weakening of Russian logistics," Kannik said.

Russian logistics including those using rail are not as strong as they once were, and are deteriorating further, he added.

African leaders generally didn't buy Putin tale

Kannik also said that last week's talk of potential peace talks, as enunciated by Kremlin mouthpiece Dmitry Peskov, who said that Russia had never given up on these and it is Ukraine which has held out, were likely related to the meeting in St. Petersburg between Putin and the leaders of several African nations.

"Most African countries are relatively neutral on the war, Kannik continued, while grain exports from both Russia and Ukraine are key for them.

Russia is trying to convince them that it wants to achieve peace as soon as possible Kannik said, adding: "This didn't work out very well; the Africans weren't exactly convinced that it was a serious scenario that Putin was talking about."


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Nele Leit-Teetlaus

Source: 'Uudis+', interviewer Kadri Põlendik.

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