The Russian state's strong public image is currently moving towards a weakening, according to security expert Rainer Saks. That aside, Ukrainian forces have reason for moderate optimism, he added, appearing on ETV show "Ukraina stuudio" Monday.
Exactly what happened with the recent downing of a plane which was carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the notorious Wagner mercenary group and who had apparently fallen foul of the regime after harsh criticism of it was followed by a failed coup attempt in Southern Russia in June, would be known only to those who organized its shooting down, he said.
"The Russian leadership also wants no clear version of events to be presented in the media, at least at this current stage," Saks went on.
That said, it seems almost certain that Prigozhin is dead, Saks noted.
The Russian leadership had called Prigozhin and his associates traitors, though the question also arises as to why he could not have been handed over to the judicial authorities in this case, Saks added.
"In Russia, the judiciary generally executes its decisions very quickly, as they have been politically evaluated beforehand," Saks went on.
"We know that what happened had been expected, since in Russia, secret services treat traitors a little differently.
"Nevertheless, we can see that the Russian president is in a situation where he has been forced to take, for him, an unconventional step and start explaining things now. He actually wants to leave the impression that he definitely did not organize this personally," Saks continued.
We should see this line continue to develop in the coming months, adding he expects the Wagner Group to be eviscerated and disbanded, even as its "strong" brand is recognized even in the western media.
There were two key points in time in the resolution of the Wagner case by the Russian leadership, namely that Russian power structures did not react sufficiently on their own initiative and that the agreement with Wagner was allowed to last for so long – this in fact demonstrates the weak position Russian president Vladimir Putin is in, Saks added.
"I would tend to think that the image of power in Russia in the eyes of people has been weakened," he said.
Saks: Ukraine has cause for moderate optimism
On the other hand, at present there is reason for optimism in Ukraine, as it can be seen that things has become much more difficult for Russian armed forces, whose resistance has weakened. "Though not in such a way that we can say that the Russian defense has been finally broken or that the Ukrainian troops have themselves been able to break through the Russian defense lines," he said, referring to the Southeastern area of occupied Ukraine, where Russian forces have dug in and fortified.
A signal moment that stood out over the weekend, one which has been confirmed by several Russian sources, is that Russia has deployed the Pskov airborne division from the northern front [of Ukraine] to the south, Saks noted.
The 76th Guards Air Assault Division is more usually based in Pskov, less than 50km from the Estonian border, and some of its personnel are thought to have been responsible for the mass killing of civilians in Bucha, near Kyiv, early on in the current war.
"Furthermore, in August of last year, when Russian troops started retreating from the west bank of the Dnieper, the Pskov airborne division was brought there too," Saks added. "This is a sign that the operational reserves that Russia had had on the southern front have started to expire," he said.
Currently, Russia has not been able to dismantle Ukrainian initiative. "I think there is cause for a moderate optimism, though I don't think that there will be a very rapid progress forwards in the coming weeks. Instead, it has been more like breaking through the Russian defensive lines at different points, then expanding the offensive corridors, as an attack on a very narrow corridor is also hazardous for Ukraine itself."
In recent weeks, Saks went on, it has become clear that Ukraine has different visions of strategy from those of its allies.
Saks noted that the majority of the Ukrainian army fights still with Soviet-era or Russian-made weapons, and only some with Western-made and supplied arms.
"This certainly puts planning in a difficult situation," he said.
"Tactics are relatively different depending on the different weapon standards. I would not rule out these misunderstandings being rather on the political level; political expectations are perhaps higher, and they want the conflict to be resolved somehow faster, so that there is stronger pressure put on Russia.
"Ukraine's leadership itself is not satisfied with the course of such an offensive from a political point of view, however, but at least up to this point in Ukraine, the ground rule has been that the military decides for itself how to deliver, so policy must be adjusted accordingly," Saks said.
At the same time, drastically diverging points of view between Ukraine and its western and other allies should not be sought in all of this, he concluded.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Barbara Oja
Source: 'Ukraine stuudio', interviewer Epp Ehand.