Breaking down Russia’s civil unrest and recent events in Ukraine

Chatham’s Bob Pearson talks Ukraine, Russian civil unrest and more


Editor’s Note: In honor of Independence Day, the News & Record decided to feature a story on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine as a reminder of the continued fight for freedom and liberation across the globe.

On Feb. 24, 2022, former U.S. Ambassador to Türkiye (Turkey) Bob Pearson woke up in his Chatham County home to the news of war: Russian forces invaded Ukraine and began their attack on major cities including the capital city of Kyiv.

Pearson has followed the conflict since Russian President Vladimir Putin started his military pursuits in Ukraine and has insight others may not have, as he not only served as a U.S. Ambassador but as the former director general of the U.S. Foreign Service.

The war in Ukraine, however, took a turn: At the end of June, a mercenary leader named Yevgeny Prigozhin ordered his troops — known as the Wagner Group — to march on Moscow in rebellion to Putin.

“The mutiny by Prigozhin was a serious break in the Russians’ ability to manage the war in Ukraine,” Pearson said. “His forces had a battle with Russian air forces, and a number of Russian soldiers were killed. In order to maintain control, Putin decided to dismiss all charges against Prigozhin and have Prigozhin agree to move him and his forces to Belarus.”

After the rebellion from the Wagner Group, many have speculated what that would mean for the war in Ukraine. Pearson said Putin is struggling to keep morale up on the homefront, and the march on Moscow from Wagner is an example of that.

“That leaves the basic questions still unanswered about whether Putin will survive the crisis,” he said. “We do know that there are strong forces that are mutually not in agreement. They're the people who've never liked the war and the people who don't like the war now … Both those groups agree that Putin isn’t doing a good job.”

The rebellion has caused Putin to lose more “prestige,” according to Pearson, and he believes there’s a lot more to the story the world isn’t hearing.

“You've got the people whose voices you're not hearing: the oligarchy and the senior military people, maybe even some unit commanders who think that this is a mess,” he said. “[They think] whatever happens, they have to do this better than they’re doing it right now, and Putin is not the guy to hit that effort up.”

As Putin’s approval rating continues to drop, Pearson said it’s possible for the Russian president to potentially be ousted from office. While it’s unlikely at the moment, Russian leadership could move to remove Putin from office if the war continues to unfold against Russia. Russia has been hard to predict throughout its conflict with Ukraine, but according to Pearson, the rebellion from Prigozhin could throw a wrench in Putin’s strategy.

“In present circumstances, Putin probably lacks the logistical support, technical means or trained personnel to reconquer what he has lost … If this were a chess game, he would be seen to be losing and without enough pieces in sight now to turn the tide,” he said. “If Putin feels cornered, he may try to take a harder line vis-à-vis Ukraine. The West should be prepared for an even harder stance from him on winning the war. If Putin is removed from office, Yevgheny Prigozhin or another strong nationalist may replace him. We have to be prepared for further surprises and challenges.”

However, there’s another potential threat to peace: China. China is a known ally of Russia, but in recent months, officials have made statements indicating China’s hesitation to send resources or aid to Russia.

“​​Instead of seeing a strong Russia conquer Ukraine, now Beijing sees new Western optimism about winning the war, and worries more about the willingness of the West to oppose an invasion of Taiwan,” Pearson said. “China is not likely to come to Russia’s aid with massive amounts of equipment or troops. Russia would not want this, and Europe, the West, India and many other countries would oppose a wider war. China’s future global standing will be affected by Russia’s fate, and given present circumstances, it cannot be happy about developments in Russia.”

NATO — also known as the National Atlantic Treaty Organization — plans to host its annual summit on July 11, and Ukraine has officially submitted its application to become a member. However, Pearson said a hurdle Ukraine faces surrounds a requirement for all NATO countries to have clear and defined borders.

However, NATO allies could make a statement in favor of Ukraine, according to Pearson.

“Setting a date might be going too far, but clear support for recovering all of Ukraine’s territory is required. Acting as if Russia could retain territory in Ukraine after a war settlement would look like Western weakness,” he said. “Political and military momentum now lies with Ukraine and its supporters. At the NATO Summit on July 11 in Lithuania, the NATO should take a clearer position on Ukraine NATO membership.”

Pearson said at the end of the day, Western nations should keep providing support to Ukraine in its fight for independence from Russia.

“There is still a brutal war going on, and the end is not in sight,” he said. “The West must stay the course, provide Ukraine with all it needs, and be ready to put the global order back on the track to democracy and weakening any authoritarian dictatorial challenge. That is where America has always been great.”

chatham, bob pearson, turkey, russia, ukraine, war