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'Collapse in morale' could trigger another mutiny in Russia, ex-MI6 chief predicts

Former MI6 chief Alex Younger has said that instability caused by Wagner's failed coup could potentially change the course of the war

Service members of Russian troops ride on top an armoured vehicle in Russian-held part of Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, July 23, 2022.  REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
Russian troops could stage a mutiny of their own following the chaos of Wagner's failed insurrection. (Reuters)

Instability caused by the failed Wagner group rebellion could lead to a "collapse in morale" or even a mutiny among the Russian military that could change the course of the Ukraine war, a former MI6 boss has said.

Sir Alex Younger said that despite successes on the battlefield achieved by the Ukrainians last year, they are not expected to make a major breakthrough just yet that would see them driving troops back into Russia.

However, after Wagner group mercenaries turned on Russian military brass last week and sent a convoy within 200km of Moscow before calling the insurrection off - the picture could easily change, he adds.

“A lot of this is about psychology. For one thing, what would absolutely change what I’ve said is a collapse in morale of the Russian army more broadly, or a mutiny," Younger told ITV's Peston show.

“And that’s a possibility now they’ve seen this fiasco unfolding behind them."

Read more: Wagner leader Prigozhin 'staying in windowless room to avoid assassination' after attempted rebellion

ROSTOV-ON-DON, RUSSIA - JUNE 24: A civilian poses with a member of the Wagner Group for a photo before their preparation to depart from the Southern Military District's headquarters and return to their base in Rostov-on-Don, Russia on June 24, 2023. (Photo by Arkady Budnitsky/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A civilian poses for a picture with a Wagner mercenary after taking over the military district in the city of Rostov-on-Don. (Getty)

Younger said that because Russian leader Vladimir Putin hasn't had to divert a large number of troops back to Moscow to defend the capital, the balance on the Ukrainian frontlines hasn't changed too much this year.

However, he said Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin's uprising - even if it was called off - has resulted in "a significant weakening of Putin’s authority" which could change the direction of the conflict.

“Everybody comes out of this weaker, and Putin in particular. He created this situation by creating a whole set of rival gangs within the security infrastructure," Younger told journalist Robert Peston.

“He kicked the Prigozhin can down the road, even as Prigozhin made it super clear – more or less – what he was going to do.

“And then on the day, on the morning, threatening bloodthirsty vengeance against traitors and then doing a deal by the afternoon, so he’s been revealed to his people, for what he is by the way, as a vacillator incapable of big decisions."

Read more: Ukraine stands to gain from Wagner Group revolt in Russia, experts say

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with servicemen at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 27, 2023. (Photo by Mikhail TERESHCHENKO / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by MIKHAIL TERESHCHENKO/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)
Even if the coup was called off, the episode has resulted in a 'significant weaking of Putin’s authority', Younger said. (Getty)

In the end, Prigozhin agreed to call off his men under a peace deal supposedly brokered by Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.

The mercenary chief agreed to move to Belarus without facing criminal charges, in a bid to diffuse tensions, while the Kremlin said that Wagner fighters would not face punishment for their role in the uprising.

Prigozhin, whose Wagner fighters were behind some of the fiercest fighting in the war, staged his attempted rebellion after accusing the head of Russia's military, Sergei Shoigu, of launching a rocket strike on his men posted in Ukraine.

Read more: Opinion: Victory for Ukraine could be closer than we thought

Even before then, resentment had been building for months as he accused Russia's top brass of failing to properly equip his fighters, of conducting itself poorly in the war, and for taking credit for Wagner victories.

Younger added that during the insurrection, "Prigozhin was on Telegram telling the Russian people that the premise for the invasion was a lie".

He added: "I suspect that fact too will have cut through in a way that’s going to be seriously corrosive."

Read more: A mutiny in photos: Inside Russian mercenary group's march toward Moscow

Rostov-on-Don, Ukraine. 24th June, 2023. A screen grab of Russian Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner Group of mercenaries broadcasting from inside the Russian Military Southern District headquarters surrounded by his loyal fighters, June 24, 2023 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. Prigozhin launched a rebellion against Moscow accusing the government of lying to the nation and corruption. Credit: Pool Photo/Wagner Group/Alamy Live News
Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was banished to Belarus as part of an apparent peace deal. (Alamy Live News)

Younger referred to rumours of a "wider clampdown" and a "purge of the military", as has been seen previously in Russian history, could weaken the troops' resolve even further.

If this does force a coup and a change of leadership, he says change in Russia is likely to be "abrupt" and "anarchic".

However, on the "more optimistic end" of possibilities, Younger said Putin could have an opportunity next year to slink away unharmed.

Read more: Russia-Ukraine war latest: Kremlin reportedly threatened Wagner families as soldiers marched to Moscow

“There is an election in Russia in March next year and these are staged events but that is an opportunity for Putin politely to either remove himself or be removed if he has in mind a successor – someone who will preserve his rights and privileges," he told Peston.

“Whoever comes after him is unlikely to be more enlightened when it comes to Russian foreign policy.

“I don’t think we can expect anyone to particularly change course, but equally I do think if it’s someone who isn’t Putin, in other words someone who didn’t actually start the war, then that is ultimately going to make it easier when it comes to whatever the diplomatic end game might consist of.”