Signs of Kremlin infighting have emerged in recent weeks over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bogged-down campaign to conquer Ukraine.
A widening divide over fighting strategy among commanders of the ill-equipped government forces, ruthless mercenaries and rogue warlords could portend a quicker collapse of Putin’s unprovoked war than an admission by the Kremlin leader that his invasion has failed.
The Russian war effort has seen three changes in battlefield commanders since it began 13 months ago. Bitter criticism of Russian Defense Ministry officials by the heads of private mercenary forces accuses Russia’s top military brass of withholding ammunition from the Putin-allied oligarch who bankrolls the most effective soldiers of fortune, the Wagner Group.
Reports have emerged from deserters and wounded troops convalescing abroad of Russian-on-Russian shootings to force reluctant recruits into battle with Ukraine’s determined defenders. A vicious battle for the ruined city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine has killed tens of thousands on both sides as neither Putin nor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seems ready to abandon the deadly slog toward what would be a largely symbolic victory.
Loudest and most telling of failed and conflicting strategies is the apparent falling out between Putin and the head of the Wagner private army owned and directed by the Kremlin leader’s longtime ally Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin’s press service last week made public what the financier described as information brought to his attention that Putin and Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev were plotting to “neutralize” Wagner forces in Ukraine. Prigozhin cited Ukrainian and Russian Telegram channels as circulating reports of the alleged statement by Patrushev that there would be “nothing left” of Wagner in “one and a half to two months.”
The Institute for the Study of War investigated the reports on social media and opined in a report Saturday that Prigozhin probably “fabricated the alleged plot to further several information operations on behalf of Wagner and his own reputation.”
Prigozhin has for months criticized the Kremlin for failure to provide sufficient ammunition to his fighters. He casts the Russian army as ineptly commanded. He also complains of his militia not getting credit for the few territorial advances Putin’s war has achieved since it stalled last summer and lost at least half the Ukrainian territory it seized in the first months.
ISW described Prigozhin’s accusation that Patrushev wanted Wagner out of the way as setting up the security chief to take the blame if Wagner fighters fail to finally take Bakhmut, “as well as introducing an invented scenario wherein Wagner poses a direct threat to Russia.”
Whether the Wagner chief’s allegations are based in fact or an attempt to blame misguided Kremlin war strategy if the Bakhmut offensive fails, either scenario lays bare deteriorating relations between Putin’s defense officials and Prigozhin.
Stresses in the alliance of fighting forces aligned with Putin’s army have appeared with other private or regional combatants. Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who has sent fighters to the war in Ukraine, last week vowed to support the mission “until victory.” In a clumsily staged meeting with Putin in the Kremlin, Kadyrov read nervously from a script boasting of economic performance in the predominantly Muslim province and vowing allegiance to the Kremlin leader. But Kadyrov has also slammed Russia’s Defense Ministry leaders and battlefield commanders for bungled prosecution of the war, as have the leaders of lesser militias involved in the fighting on Putin’s side, including remnants of the Cossack cavalry units disbanded after World War II.
ISW reported that Russia has redeployed some of its peacekeeping force from Nagorno-Karabakh to Ukraine, a move that is “eroding Russia’s influence with Armenia.” The Russian Federation is a guarantor of the November 2020 ceasefire brokered between Armenia and Azerbaijan that halted most fighting in the disputed enclave. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan warned Moscow that Azerbaijan is preparing a large-scale offensive and his government will appeal to the U.N. Security Council if Russia fails in its duty to deter renewed fighting in the enclave.
The Kremlin reportedly cut off Prigozhin’s access to Russian prisoners for recruitment into the Wagner ranks. Since the start of the war, at least 80% of the 50,000 fighters in the private army came from Russia’s most notorious prisons. Inmates with long sentences for brutal crimes have signed contracts with Wagner Group to fight in Ukraine in exchange for about $2,000 a month and termination of their sentence if they survive six months on the front lines.
Prigozhin on Saturday announced he planned to recruit 30,000 more fighters for his private militia by the end of May to reinforce the decimated forces in the protracted battle to take Bakhmut, the longest and bloodiest campaign since Putin launched his invasion
Britain’s Ministry of Defense reported Saturday that Russian regular army forces in Ukraine have conducted “some of the lowest rates of local offensive action that has been seen since at least January.” The defense intel blamed the invaders’ static positions on the depleted ranks awaiting fresh recruits and dwindling supplies of materiel with which to advance.
Remote and revolving-door leadership of Russian army recruits is likely a further sign that Putin and his generals have struggled to devise a coherent strategy to take Ukraine, a “special military operation” initially expected to topple the Kyiv government in a few days. The war had no theater-based coordinated command after the invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, until mid-April last year when Putin appointed Gen.
Alexander Dvornikov, known as the “Butcher of Syria” for his brutal tactics in that Middle East civil war. Six months later, the Kremlin replaced Dvornikov with Air Force Gen. Sergei Surovikin, another veteran of foreign military operations known for barbarity. Surovikin was removed from command after only three months, replaced by Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov in January.
The consensus among most Russia foreign policy experts and analysts is that the war in Ukraine will drag on for many months or even years, until Putin dies or in the unlikely event he is deposed in a palace coup. While the Russian president gives no indication of reconsidering his Ukraine calamity and cutting his losses, the fractious leaders of his motley war-fighting force could erode unity and commitment among the Russia factions in the stumbling campaign on the battlefields.
Ukrainian forces, by contrast, are steeled by a fierce desire to preserve their independence and poised for a spring counteroffensive with upgraded weaponry from Western allies that could give them the firepower to roll over weakened Russian forces fighting among themselves.