Ukraine is in a strong battlefield position against invading Russian forces but the exile of a rebel mercenary leader to neighbouring Belarus poses a fresh potential threat, a former British Army chief has told Sky News.
While Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been “wounded” by the short-lived rebellion and his frontline troops are demoralised, Lord Dannatt said the Kyiv government should guard against a cross-border attack from Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group.
The former chief of the general staff was speaking to the Sophy Ridge On Sunday show following the turmoil in Russia that saw Prigozhin’s private army advance on Moscow.
Wagner troops have played a crucial role in the Ukraine war, capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut, but Prigozhin has increasingly criticised the military top brass, accusing it of incompetence and depriving his troops of ammunition.
Despite Putin accusing his one-time ally of treason and mutiny, charges against him of mounting an armed rebellion were dropped.
Moscow also said it would not prosecute Wagner fighters who took part in the insurrection.
In allowing Prigozhin and his forces to go free, the Kremlin said Putin’s “highest goal” was “to avoid bloodshed”.
Ukrainians had hoped the Russian infighting would create opportunities for their army to take back territory seized by Russian forces.
But Lord Dannatt said: “Apparently he’s left the stage to go to Belarus but is that the end of Prigozhin and the Wagner Group? The fact that he’s gone to Belarus is I think a matter of some concern.
“What we don’t know, what we will discover in the next hours and days is… how many of his fighters have actually gone with him.
“If he has gone to Belarus and has kept an effective fighting force around him, he then presents a threat again to the Ukrainian flank closest to Kyiv which is where all this began on 24 February last year.
“Although it would appear that this matter is closed I think it is far from closed and the aftershocks will reverberate for quite some time.
“They (Ukraine) need to watch that flank very carefully and make sure they have got some manoeuvre units such that they could repel a renewed attack from the direction of Belarus.”
On the wider conflict, the independent crossbench peer added: “The Ukrainians, I’m sure, have got uppermost in their mind the morale of their opponents, the average Russian soldier is pretty low.
“And that’s why if they can find some points of weakness along the Russian defensive lines and exploit those with one or two decisive blows, it could have a disproportionate effect in shattering the morale and the backbone of the Russian army and produce some quite significant success.
“Ukraine remains in a strong position against an enemy, albeit in prepared defensive positions, with low morale and a disjointed command and control structure at the present moment, whose political leader undoubtedly has been wounded by events in the past.”
But he warned: “I think we’ve got to watch very carefully to see what Prigozhin and his Wagner troops do. And there is a possible threat that they might pose from Belarus to Kyiv. If I was the Ukrainian commander-in-chief, I would watch that front very carefully.”
Meanwhile, former MI6 officer Christopher Steele told Sky News the brief uprising had damaged the Russian leader.
He told Sky News: “What’s changed I think is that Vladimir Putin has lost authority and legitimacy within Russia and has been challenged in a way, yes he’s managed to worm his way out of it for the present.
“To see events unfold in Russia yesterday and the speed with which the situation seemed to spiral out of control must be very concerning for Putin and the people around him.”
Chief Secretary to the Treasury John Glen told the Ridge programme: “It is obviously a very unstable situation in Russia, but it is fundamentally an internal matter.
“This isn’t a matter that we will be intervening in, but obviously we observe and monitor the situation on an ongoing basis very carefully.”