‘Russian army goes from 2nd most powerful in the world to 2nd in Russia’

Before the Ukraine invasion, Russia’s armed forces were believed to be lean, modern and fighting fit
A Russian soldier. Photo by Dominik Sostmann on Unsplash

One of the pithiest summaries of the confused situation in Russia as the Wagner group chief went up in direct opposition to the country’s rulers, particularly President Vladimir Putin, came from Yuriy Sak.

He’s an advisor to Ukraine’s defence ministry and partner at the strategic communications firm CFC Big Ideas. Interviewed by the BBC on the unfolding Wagner uprising in Russia, Mr Sak  described what we have all seen happen, with our own eyes in the past few years: The Russian army has gone from being the second most powerful army in the world, to the second most powerful army in Ukraine, to the second most powerful army in Russia.

That’s a very clever comment. It shows the distance traversed over time and particularly in the 16 months since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Before February 24, 2022, the day the invasion  began, Russia’s armed forces were believed to be lean, modern and fighting fit. But Kyiv didn’t fall in just a few days and Ukraine didn’t fold some weeks later. Russia was unable to run a shock and awe US-style military campaign – quick, decisive, determinative.

Clearly, Russia was not the second most powerful army in the world.

In fact, the Russian army seemed unable to manage without tens of thousands of fighters of the private military company, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group. It was Wagner that played a major part in the long and difficult battle to take the city of Bakhmut from Ukrainian forces. In January,  the UK Ministry of Defence was noting that Wagner has at least “50,000 fighters in Ukraine and has become a key component of the Ukraine campaign”.

But the Ukrainian counter-offensive has been showing some results, patchy and slow as they are. Clearly, Russia was increasingly looking like a candidate for having the second most powerful army in Ukraine.

And now, with the Wagner uprising back home in Russia, it’ll be a test of wills and willingness to see if the Russian army is relegated to second most powerful in Russia too.