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Hello and welcome to the Intelligence from The Economist. I'm your host, Jason Palmer. Every weekday we provide a fresh perspective on the events shaping your world. Today we'll be taking a deep dive into the extraordinary events in Russia and Ukraine over the weekend. A short-lived mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group fighters he first led for and then, apparently, briefly, against Russia.
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We'll examine the situation as seen within Russia's borders and what the evident chaos means for Ukraine's slow-rolling counter-offensive. It's as fast-moving a story as any since Russia's invasion of Ukraine 16 months ago. On Friday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner group of mercenaries, thugs and ex-convicts that's been
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aiding Russian forces, lashed out.
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The evil being spread by the country's military leadership must be stopped, he said. He'd been ranting against that military leadership for months, but this was far more than harsh words. Soon, a convoy of Wagner forces set off from Ukraine, heading for Moscow. A Wagner fighter in St. Petersburg said that a general call-up had been announced.
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Guys from all over Russia are coming, he said. Then Mr. Prigozhin was broadcasting from Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city that houses the headquarters of the Southern military district, which oversees the war. Military facilities in Rostov, including the airfield, are under control, he said. Security was tightened in Moscow overnight, but it took until Saturday morning for Russia's President Vladimir Putin to respond.
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In a speech broadcast to the nation, Mr. Putin seethed, referring to internal betrayal, to treason, but not directly to Mr. Prigozhin himself. Then, as suddenly as the mutiny began, it started to fall apart. Mr.
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Prigozhin called off the advance. We wanted to
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disband the VK Vagner. We left...
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Vagner group forces in Rostov started packing up and leaving, as the residents cheered them on. Mr. Prigozhin, it emerged, was going to head to neighbouring Belarus in a deal brokered by President Alexander Lukashenko, a staunch Putin ally. Mutinous Wagner fighters wouldn't be charged. Russia's hawkish TV pundits didn't like the sound of that 1 bit.
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All the drafts were ready, everyone was waiting. It was a planned media operation.
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That was it.
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The rebellion was over. But the story is most certainly not.
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I think This is 1 of the biggest stories in Russia certainly since the war began. Arkady Ostrovsky is our Russia editor. And the biggest challenge to Putin in probably 20 years of his power.
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We've spoken a lot about Mr. Prigozhin and Wagner on the show before and his disquiet about the military leadership in Russia, but it always sounded as if he had Vladimir Putin's cover. What's gone on here? He does not seem to be under Mr. Putin's wing any longer.
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Well, you're right, Jason. Prigozhin did have Putin's cover. In fact, Prigozhin was very much Putin's creation, the guy who was known as Putin's chef. The story here is that Putin, as somebody who came out from the 1990s with all the gangsterism, with all the weak institutions, relied on this personal relationship and personal links and notions much more than he relied on any state institutions. And Prigozhin was 1 of those people who formally didn't exist.
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Wagner formally didn't exist because Russian law explicitly bans armed formations and private armies. Prigozhin performed some important tasks for Putin.
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It was Prigozhin's man who we saw on the ground in Ukraine during the annexation of Crimea and the first incursion in Donbass in
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But at some point, Mr. Prigozhin has come out of the shadows, and loudly.
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That's right. Prigozhin started coming out of the shadows just under a year ago, in the autumn of last year. He suddenly started posting on Telegram. He came to admit that Wagner was very much his group. Putin probably thought he was useful because he was kicking the Ministry of Defense and the head of army, Gerasimov, and Minister of Defense Shoigu, for not performing that well in Ukraine.
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And as Russians were retreating rather embarrassingly from Kharkiv region and from Kherson, Prigozhin was out there stoking them, poking them. And at that point, Putin thought he was still useful. He then started coming out with much more violent verbal attacks on the army. And I think the decision was made that this is too much, and they decided to fold him in. And when they started integrating Wagner into the regular force, at that moment, he rebelled.
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And he said, absolutely not. And he started calling Shoigu and Gerasimov traitors.
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Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where are your f**king ammunition?
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He said they were planting mines on the way of his troops as they were withdrawing from Bahmut, And then he showed a video, which is not clear what it was, saying they've heeded his positions. And then he started this march to Moscow. He called it a march of justice, just to remove Shoigu and Gerasimov. But this was clearly a challenge to Putin. And very damagingly, Prigozhin actually questioned the basis of Putin's special military operation, as Putin describes it, saying there's been no real threat from Ukraine.
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That is a big, big statement to make because basically Putin based his whole narrative around oh we were faced with a threat from Ukraine, they were fascists. He earlier said actually we've gone to Ukraine, we've been there, there are no fascists and he said that it was the vanity and corruption, a vainglory of Russian leaders and the corrupt elite that led the country into this war. And it's them who've thrown people as cannon fodder to the front. This statement he's made really does undermine the legitimacy of Putin's special military operation if they were ever looking for 1.
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How do you think all that
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is going to land with the Russian people? There has been this question for all of this time as to whether the people inside Russia would start to lose faith, any faith that there was. Do you think this accelerates that?
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I think it does accelerate it. Look, Jason, the Russian people never wanted this war. They've supported it or acquiesced to it because of propaganda, because of fear, and because of psychological comfort. It's very hard to believe your country is doing something as criminal and as atrocious as this war. As we've seen, nobody came out on the streets for Putin.
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Whether they will lose faith in the war, that will take much longer now because a lot of lives have been lost And every fifth person in Russia, according to the latest poll, 20% of Russians know somebody who's been mobilized and who's been killed in this war. So pulling out surely will not be easy. But people I think are starting perhaps to question Putin, how solid things are. They will wait to see who comes on top and then they will declare that who comes on top a real ruler.
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So Mr. Prigozhin then leads this rebellion, abandons this rebellion within a day and allegedly is now in Belarus. What's to make of the deal that's been struck here and what do we know about the deal?
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So Jason, we know very, very little. And my sense, to be honest, this is far from over. This is the first episode of something that I think we're going to see unfold over the coming days and weeks. So let's just look at the facts. Prigozhin marches to Moscow.
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Security services, the border guards vanish, letting him pass. No resistance. People come out in the streets to take photographs, but what's important is nobody is coming out for Putin. He marches to Moscow, within 200 kilometers he stops, then there is allegedly negotiations, Putin comes out on television. This is very important because the whole story breaks at that point into really public space.
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Effectively, Putin, by coming out on television and television putting out a special news bulletin in the middle of the night admits it at emergency. Putin comes out and says, this is treason, this is a knife in the back of the Russian state. This is betrayal and there will be tough response and calls on security services effectively to arrest and apprehend Prigozhin. He evokes quite rightly this sort of this factor of the 1917 revolution. He's saying this is how it went after the First World War.
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There was betrayal, you know, the loss of will at the top, but we're not going to allow this, we're going to stand this
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out. The greatest shock, the destruction of the army...
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What happens next? Prigozhin is not arrested. The charges are effectively dropped. Moscow, which has been put on security alert and the counter-terrorist alert, suddenly cancels it. Prigozhin is allowed to leave.
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Putin is nowhere to be seen again. He hasn't come out to explain what happened. So in my mind, where we're now, we're actually in a pause, in a sort of hiatus, if you like. The meaning of what just happened will become clear by what follows it.
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But for the moment anyway, it would appear that Mr. Putin looks pretty weak.
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He does look weak. Look, Putin is a survivor. He's mastered that for a long time. When he's faced with a challenge, he doesn't often respond immediately. He sometimes takes time to regroup and then he strikes back.
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Prigozhin is not your Moscow liberal crowd. Prigozhin and the people around him are serious fighters. They've got arms, most importantly. They know how this criminal world to which they belong and to which Putin belonged works. So I don't think they will be taking anything at face value.
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They will be also thinking and regrouping I think both sides have for now pulled back But politically Putin is
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of course very weakened because the public
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and most importantly the elite is looking at him saying what's going on here Why is precaution still free? Why is all the charges being dropped? And by the way, at least a dozen and possibly as many as 20 regular soldiers, pilots, have been killed during this march. Now their relatives will be wondering, why did they die? What did they die for?
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So I think there are a lot of unanswered questions. And I think it does undermine massively the morale of the elite, undermines morale of soldiers and officers who are now fighting in Ukraine. And I think things are looking shaky. And usually, this sort of spasms, this kind of mutinies can work as precursors for something great to unfold. I think we are at the beginning of a very, very turbulent time and we're really in uncharted territories now.
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Why is the way Mr. Putin responded contributing to that perception of his weakness?
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What Putin did is he allowed this to happen. He is the 1 who pushed Russia to the edge of a civil war and disintegration. Because he used television instead of normal channels of command. And because what he said on television, which is that there would be tough response, was not followed by tough response, but some shady negotiations. He miscalculated on Prigozhin, he miscalculated in war.
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And now he is unable to strike back immediately the way that other strong leaders had done when faced with a coup. We might still see it, but for now Putin's taking his time.
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And it's fair to say then that Mr. Prigozhin, wherever he is, in Belarus or elsewhere, should probably stay away from any windows into all buildings?
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Yes, and I'm sure as somebody who is very experienced in all sorts of violence, he knows that. To me, 1 of the most astonishing things is that Wagner centers, recruiting centers, continue to operate. That Prigozhin continues to communicate through telegram. That the posters of Wagner, some of them have been ripped down, but others have survived. So it's really not clear what Putin's response is going to be.
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And it's even less clear how strong he is at this point, or how strong the Russian state is. And perhaps Prigozhin, who is part of this whole criminal system, understood that, and had a sense that it's not as strong as it appears. He pushed the boundaries and Putin moved back. This is very significant. And it also tells you, much more importantly, if we zoom out from the immediate kind of tick-tock of what happened over the past 72 hours, This is a real sign of decay of a regular state.
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And this is very dangerous because we're talking about a large country and we're talking about a nuclear power. So time of troubles are not new for Russia, but the fact that this that's happening on this scale in the middle of the most criminal, stupid, unprovoked war and this political crisis is surely worrying. Arkady, thank you very much for joining us. Thank you for having me, Jason.
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Arkady has spent much of the invasion of Ukraine looking into how it's affecting ordinary Russians, how the power of the Kremlin has drowned out the will of the people, how the growing disquiet has driven many Russians abroad. He tells a nuanced and troubling story in our recent podcast series next year in Moscow. Look for it wherever you get your podcasts.
00:15:30 - 00:15:58
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Arkady spoke about the decay of a regular state, a point that Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was only too happy to make over the weekend.
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That the Russian authorities don't control anything. Nothing at all. Just complete chaos, complete absence of any kind of foresight. And this is on Russian territory.
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Today, the world saw that the bosses of Russia do not control anything, he said. Complete chaos. Pointing out that that chaos was playing out in a nuclear-armed state. America's Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, raised questions about stability in the Kremlin and how all this may affect the invasion of Ukraine.
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There are lots of unanswered questions, including the questions of what happens to Purgoshin's forces. Do they remain in Ukraine? We saw the extraordinary image of these forces coming out of Ukraine and going into Russia just yesterday.
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It's too early to tell just how much these extraordinary images may help Ukraine in its counteroffensive. But my colleagues Oliver Carroll in Kiev and Shashank Joshi, our defense editor in London, have been thinking about little else.
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Ukraine has been mounting a counteroffensive against Russia since about June 4th. And from the evidence we have, it's made relatively slow progress, particularly in some of the new fronts that they opened up in the south. There have been reasonable casualties. Some of the newer brigades haven't performed terribly well. Now, Ukraine has not committed the bulk of the forces that were armed and equipped by the West over the last several months, but there is a sense now that this kind of mutiny inside Russia could shake things up.
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Yeah, that's certainly right. We're seeing the Ukrainians struggling, particularly against drones and artillery and a very well-prepared Russian defense. But the Ukrainians will certainly be looking to respond to capitalise on what's happening in Russia.
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And Oliver Shishank, let's start with the response then. Were Ukrainian forces able to take advantage of what's been going on in Russia over the weekend?
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So, there certainly was an attempt to make some gains during the chaos. We know, in particular, there's been a bit of a breakthrough in around Bakhmut, which was the town in the Donbass, which the Russians took about a year in seizing. The Ukrainians now are in a fairly dominating position there and since Saturday they've been pushing from the northern and the southern flanks and they've made about 2 kilometers over that time. What's important as they emphasized to me was that they were doing that without any particular advantage numerically or with western hardware. These are old brigades not using the new Western equipment like Challengers and Leopard tanks.
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Those are in the South. We're also seeing a lot of movements in and around Kherson, which is on the Western side of the front lines. And there was a lot of speculation as to how Ukraine might take advantage of weakened defenses after the dam being destroyed. We know that a small group has established a base on the eastern side. How that will develop, it's far too early to say.
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And we also know that Ukrainian forces have made some progress in and around Donetsk city and they're taking a village called Stary Mikhailovka, which is about
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kilometers to the west of Donetsk itself.
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Yeah, I think Olli's correct. In the east, they do seem to have capitalized on Russian disarray, but not much on the southern front where we perhaps have naturally expected the main thrust of the offensive to come, rightly or wrongly. You know, Olly and I, I'm sure we've both been glued to the Russian social media channels that document the battlefield in eye-watering detail, and we certainly haven't seen any big breakthroughs in the South.
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And perhaps that's linked to the fact that this rebellion was fairly short-lived, could have been capitalized better on if in fact it had lasted a little longer.
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I think so. I mean, clearly there was a prospect here of prolonged chaos, even regime change in Russia, although Prygorzhin probably would have been stopped violently on the outskirts of Moscow 1 way or the other. And I think the point is not so much that Wagner was vital to the battlefield. Wagner troops are quite sizable in number, but they weren't playing a vital role on the front lines right now. They had been moved away from Bakhmut several weeks ago, which is 1 of the reasons why Ukraine was able to make progress there.
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I think the point was more that Ukrainian officers had hoped Russia would have to redeploy its reserves from Ukraine and send them back home to deal with this coup slash mutiny unfolding on its own soil. That didn't happen. But I do think that even if this was ephemeral, it's going to have a pretty lasting impact on the battlefield, not least in terms of losses. I mean, we saw the destruction of 7 helicopters, we saw the destruction of airborne command post, also advanced electronic warfare helicopters. And I think above all, just the complete chasm, the friction exposed right at the top of the Russian armed forces.
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In terms of Ukraine itself, I've been talking over the weekend to various intelligence sources, including very senior ones, and they certainly did hope this would play out a lot longer than it did. But they were fairly clear-eyed about it. You know, most people were saying even at the start on Saturday that it was a matter of 1 to 2 days. As Shashank said, they expected the column would be destroyed before it came to Moscow. I mean, Rostov, Voronezh, these are fairly provincial towns with some level of affinity towards Prigozhin and his people.
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Once you get towards Moscow, that's a different level.
00:21:39 - 00:21:47
So the rebellion not as long perhaps as the Ukrainians might have hoped, but still there will be massive psychological effects here on both sides, right?
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I think profound psychological effects. First of all, you've just had a situation where Yevgeny Prigozhin, who, you know, for all his human rights abuses and image of callousness and cruelty in the West, which is all legitimate, he's still liked among a number of troops. He's seen as having a certain sort of rough honesty in comparison to the generals and to the Russian defense ministry. You've just heard him at length explain why the war is being fought on false premises wasn't necessary, and the troops are being used as cannon fodder. So, you know, that's extraordinary in itself.
00:22:20 - 00:22:59
That's going to resonate among some of the troops on the ground, not least the Wagner fighters who may be now brought back into the regular force through contracts. But on the other side of it, you'll also have this friction between Wagner and the regulars, whatever their formal status, because you've had 24 hours in which Russian jets have bombed and strafed Wagner convoys, in which Wagner forces on the ground have killed more than a dozen Russian members of the Air Force. So I think, how are these 2 forces meant to fight alongside each other in a coherent way when their relationship was already toxic before this weekend and is now, I think I've got to say, downright poisonous?
00:23:00 - 00:23:21
And I think Shashank has hit it there. While actually very little will change on the front lines in the short term, just imagine you're a soldier in the trenches there. You're running around, you're facing a pretty horrific situation on the front lines. And you see this situation developing in Russia. Prigorzhin essentially painting the picture of the president and those around him as fat cats.
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So that is obviously going to play on morale. And it's obviously not the end of the game. And I think Ukraine, while they're disappointed that this hasn't lasted as long as they thought it was, They do hope this is the first chapter and they do hope that as things play on, you'll see more and more significant uprisings in Russia itself. People were telling me what this got across was the idea that people could start demanding things from their president, who before was untouchable.
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We've heard about what the story is like for Russia and for Russians, for Ukraine and Ukrainians. What about the world that's watching?
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Well, most Western countries have watched and kept their silence. They haven't celebrated, they didn't cheer it on for fear of being seen to trying to break up Russia. We saw even Antony Blinken, America's Secretary of State, described this essentially as being Russia's internal problem. And that was very deliberate language. But I think they are recognizing that this has an impact, as Olli has said, on the sense of Russian stamina in this campaign.
00:24:24 - 00:25:05
We saw, for example, Italy's foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, say that the mutiny had, quote, ended the myth of the unity of Putin's Russia. And he said, 1 thing is certain, today the Russian front is weaker than it was yesterday. I hope that peace will be closer. And I think the logic there is, we've got this collective sense that Russia is now relying on a long war in which NATO countries become exhausted and tired and distracted. And I think what is now becoming apparent is that actually a long war is accelerating the stresses and strains, the decay of the Putin regime in ways that mean he too may be pressured towards a peace deal.
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But of course, that depends on what Ukraine can achieve on the battlefield.
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Absolutely. In a recent interview we did with Kyrill Budan, the head of Ukraine's military intelligence, He was really emphasizing their aim to demonstrate the weakness of Russian defences. But this is a double edged sword here. On the 1 hand, yes, it does create opportunities and show that Russia is essentially beatable. But for many in the West, whose main worry is of course the potential for nuclear escalation, this might not play out particularly in Ukraine's advantage.
00:25:39 - 00:25:43
So Oliver Shishank, so many questions as yet unanswered. What are you keeping
00:25:43 - 00:25:46
an eye on? What should we be looking for over the coming weeks and months?
00:25:46 - 00:26:20
So there's still very little we know about the agreement, which was hammered out in the end by Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of Belarus. What we do know is that we have this core of perhaps 5, 000 professional, hardened fighters from Wagner, who can, where they're deployed, solve problems for whoever needs them being solved. There's a big question as to the role of Lukashenko here, actually. Apart from Ukraine, perhaps he's the main winner in all of this. As far as I understand, he only took part in the last part of the negotiations.
00:26:21 - 00:26:42
But he has, by creating a sort of truce between Prigogine and Putin, he has essentially inserted himself above Putin, which is something which he's been trying to do for many, many years. He's no longer the younger brother. And perhaps, you know, in the future, perhaps with Wagner's support, who knows, he might be looking to strengthen his position further.
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1 of the biggest choices Putin faces is that if he wants to have any kind of offensive potential in this war again, he's going to have to mobilize another
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300, 400, 000
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men as he did last autumn. And that's going to become ever more difficult, ever more dangerous in this era in which his own authority is punctured. The rationale for the war has been brutally and publicly filleted by 1 of his most effective commanders, Prygozhin, and in which Russians themselves will be looking around asking, you know, do I want to die for the sake of what Pragosian, less than 48 hours ago, described as this oligarchic elite? I'm not so sure that sounds like a great idea.
00:27:28 - 00:27:31
Oliver, Mr. Chong, thank you very much for your time.
00:27:31 - 00:27:32
Thank you. Thanks Jason.
00:27:46 - 00:28:08
That's all for this episode of The Intelligence. Just a quick thanks to everyone who's filled out 1 of our listener surveys recently. It's really helping us to improve what we do. If you could spare a few more minutes, we have a new follow-up survey and we'd love it if you could help us improve even more. It's at economist.com slash podcast survey and as ever, the link is in the show notes.
00:28:08 - 00:28:11
Many thanks and see you back here tomorrow.
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