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Russia’s Notorious Wagner Group Is Being Disbanded. Here’s What That Means for Ukraine

4 minute read

In the wake of a tumultuous weekend that saw Russian President Vladimir Putin survive the biggest test to his leadership in 23 years, the disbandment of the mutinous Wagner Group appears to now be underway, the BBC reported.

Russia’s defense ministry has said that the Wagner Group will surrender its supply of weapons and hardware, and its fighters have been invited by Putin to join the Russian army instead. Failing that, mercenaries can flee to neighboring Belarus, which has been involved in mediating an agreement between the two parties since Wagner’s rebellion on Saturday.

The mercenary group seized control of key military sites in Rostov-on-Don during an armed event that saw at least 13 pilots killed, according to news reports citing pro-military bloggers. Wagner Group’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and his fighters decided to turn back before reaching Moscow and entered a deal—brokered with assistance from Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko—that saw the charges against Prigozhin dropped in exchange for him leaving the country.

A private jet linked to Prigozhin arrived in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, on Tuesday morning. But it has not yet been confirmed if the Wagner chief was onboard, and the Kremlin has said it has no information on his whereabouts.

Prigozhin spoke out on Monday for the first time since the aborted rebellion, releasing an 11-minute audio statement in which he said the march was a retaliation in regards to a Russian rocket attack that killed 30 of his fighters. “We started our march because of an injustice,” Prigozhin said, according to translations by Sky News. “Civilians came out to meet us with Russian flags and Wagner emblems, they were happy when we arrived and walked past them.”

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On Tuesday, Putin addressed military personnel at the Kremlin and called for a minute’s silence to honor pilots who died during the march. “You’ve essentially stopped a civil war, you acted properly and in a coordinated manner,” he told personnel. He added that Wagner Group did not have the support of the army or the Russian people, the BBC reported.

Ukraine looking on with ‘glee’

The long run effects of disbanding Wagner Group could undercut Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine, experts say. “The most battle hardened people, those diehard people in Prigozhin’s inner circle will not join the Ministry of Defense,” says Andreas Krieg, a professor of security studies at King’s College London. “They’re also the kinds of people who would make a difference on the battlefield.”

Read More: Wagner Group’s Revolt in Russia Ends After Deal Struck. Here’s What to Know

Unlike traditional, state-funded militaries, Wagner is a private, for-profit entity that operates around the world. Because of this, the group is able to operate independently from the Russian state and its chain of command is structured quite differently from the traditional Russian military. “Wagner is structured like a special forces unit where there’s quite a lot of autonomy for boots on the ground to make decisions as they see fit,” Krieg says. “That makes them far more dynamic and agile than the Russian military, which is still a post-Soviet military and is very hierarchically structured.”

According to Krieg, Putin may try to compensate for any loss of Wagner forces by adding additional Chechen soldiers or finding other ways to integrate new forces. But Russian forces are still likely to suffer a setback in the long run from the loss of the highly mobile Wagner fighters, he adds.

The Wagner rebellion comes at an opportune time for Ukraine, which has begun its long-awaited spring counteroffensive. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense tweeted Tuesday morning that it was highly likely that it had recaptured some of the territory that had been occupied by Russia since 2014. Additionally, Ukrainian forces have liberated up to 50 square miles of territory along the southern frontline from Russia since the start of the latest counteroffensive, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar said on Monday.

“I get the sense here in Kyiv that they’re looking at the events in Russia with quite a bit of glee,” wrote Mayeni Jones for the BBC. “Over the weekend, President Zelensky basically said that Russia was getting its just deserts for invading Ukraine and that everything happening to Putin was as a direct result of all of his decision to invade Ukrainian territory.”

This is a developing story.

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Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com