Cracks in Russian military command amid fighting in Ukraine

As Russian troops wage a bitter house-to-house struggle for control of forts in eastern Ukraine, a parallel struggle is unfolding at the top echelons of military power in Moscow, with President Vladimir Putin reshuffling his top generals while rival factions try to win his favor.

The battles for the salt mining town of Soledar and the nearby town of Bakhmut has highlighted a bitter rift between the leadership of the Russian Defense Ministry and Yevgeny Prigozhin, a rogue millionaire whose private military unit known as the Wagner Group is playing an increasingly visible role in Ukraine.

Putin’s reshuffle of the military leadership this week was seen as an attempt to show that the Defense Ministry still has his backing and is in charge the troubled conflict is approaching the 11 month mark.

Prigozhin rushed Wednesday to declare that his mercenary force had captured Soledar, a claim dismissed by Ukrainian officials. Additionally, his statement that the award was won solely by Wagner challenged Department of Defense reports describing the use of airborne troops and other forces in the battle for Soledar.

the 61-year-old PrigozhinKnown as “Putin’s chef” for his lucrative catering deals and accused in the US of interfering in the 2016 presidential election, , has expanded his fortunes into wagners, mining and other spheres. He has slammed the military for mistakes in Ukraine, saying Wagner is more efficient than regular troops.

He has found a powerful ally in Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who is sending elite troops from his southern Russian region to fight in Ukraine and has also attacked the military leadership and the Kremlin for being too soft and indecisive.

While both have sworn loyalty to Putin, their public attacks on his top generals openly challenged the Kremlin’s monopoly on such criticism, something Russia’s tightly controlled political system had never seen before.

In the reshuffle announced Wednesday, the Defense Ministry said that Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov has been named the new head of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, while former commander-in-chief there, General Sergei Surovikin, has been demoted to Gerasimov’s deputy after just three months on the job.

The Washington-based Institute of the Study of War saw the reshuffle as an attempt by the Kremlin “to reassert the supremacy of the Russian Defense Ministry in an internal Russian power struggle,” to weaken the influence of its opponents, and to send a signal to Prigozhin and others that to reduce their criticism.

Prigozhin and Kadyrov have repeatedly criticized Gerasimov, the main architect of Russia’s operation in Ukraine, blaming him for military defeats, while praising Surovikin.

Russian troops were forced to withdraw from Kyiv after a botched attempt to capture the Ukrainian capital in the first weeks of the war. In the autumn, under the force of a rapid Ukrainian counteroffensive, they hastily withdrew from the north-eastern Kharkiv region and the southern city of Kherson.

Surovikin led the retreat from Kherson, the only regional center captured by Russia, and was put in charge of strengthening command and increasing discipline in the ranks. But a January 1 Ukrainian missile attack in the eastern city of Makiivka killed dozens of Russian troops and tarnished its image.

Political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya noted that Gerasimov’s appointment was still preordained another attempt by Putin to solve his military problems by shaking up the brass.

“He’s trying to reshuffle the pieces, so he’s giving those who convince him a chance,” she wrote. “But in reality the problem is not with the people, but with the tasks at hand.”

Stanovaya argued that Gerasimov could have asked for “carte blanche in the heat of verbal battles against the background of some very tense discussions.” For Putin, “this is a maneuver, a tug of war between Surovikin (and sympathizers like Prigozhin) and Gerasimov,” she added.

Gerasimov, who began his military career in the 1970s as a tank officer in the Soviet Army, has been Chief of the General Staff since 2012 and was seen sitting at a very long table next to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu Putin at the start of the conflict in February. His appointment as direct leader of the armed forces in Ukraine drew sharp comments from some Russian hawks.

Viktor Alksnis, a retired Soviet air force colonel who spearheaded botched attempts to preserve the USSR in 1991, noted that Gerasimov had already overseen the action in Ukraine before his appointment.

“This decision reflects our political and military leadership’s understanding that the special military operation has failed and none of its objectives have been achieved in almost a year of fighting,” Alksnis wrote on his messaging app channel. “Replacing Surovikin with Gerasimov will not change anything.”

Mark Galeotti, who specializes in Russian military and security affairs at University College London, said the appointment brought Gerasimov “the most poisoned chalice” as he will now bear direct responsibility for any further setbacks.

“Gerasimov is hanging by a thread,” Galeotti said in a comment on Twitter. “He needs some kind of win or a career ends in disgrace. This could well indicate some kind of escalation.”

Galeotti also warned that frequent reshuffles of Russian generals could erode loyalty in the officer corps.

“If you keep appointing, rotating, burning your (relative) stars, setting unrealistic expectations, and demoting them arbitrarily, that’s not going to win loyalty,” he said.

Prigozhin, meanwhile, has used military setbacks in Ukraine to expand his influence, making the Wagner Group a central element of Russia’s armed forces and reinforcing the regular army, which has suffered severe attrition.

Ukrainian officials claimed Wagner contractors suffered massive casualties in the fighting at Soledar and Bakhmut and advanced “on the bodies of their own comrades.”

Once convicted of assault and robbery, for which he spent time in prison, Prigozhin has embarked on a tour of Russia’s sprawling network of penal colonies in recent months, recruiting inmates to join Wagner’s forces in exchange for pardon to fight in Ukraine.

He recently released a video showing about 20 convicts allowed to leave the ranks of fighters after serving half a year on the front lines, while making it clear that anyone who breaks ranks will be brutally punished.

Footage released in the autumn showed a Wagner contractor being beaten to death with a sledgehammer after allegedly defecting to the Ukrainian side. Despite public outrage and calls to investigate the incident, authorities have turned a blind eye.

Observers have warned that by giving Prigozhin a free hand to lead Wagner as a private army governed by medieval rules, the government has effectively sowed dangerous seeds of possible upheaval.

“In the end there will be chaos and the escalation of violence — extrajudicial and illegal,” predicted Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment.


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Sarah Y. Kim

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