As Russian troops wage a fierce house-to-house struggle for control of strongholds in eastern Ukraine, a parallel battle is unfolding in the upper echelons of military power in Moscow, with President Vladimir Putin reshuffling his top generals while rival camps try to win his service.
The fighting for the salt mining town of Soledar and the nearby town of Bakhmut highlighted a bitter rift between the Russian Defense Ministry leadership and Yevgeny Prigozhin, a rogue millionaire whose private military force known as the Wagner Group has played an increasingly visible role in Ukraine.
Putin’s reshuffling of the military hierarchy this week was seen as an attempt to show that the Defense Ministry still has his backing and is in charge of the troubled conflict approaching the 11-month mark.
Prigozhin rushed on Wednesday to declare that his mercenary force had captured Soledar, arguing that the prize had been won exclusively by Wagner. The Ministry of Defense disputed this characterization – describing the action of airborne troops and other forces in the battle – and on Friday claimed credit for taking the city.. A Ukrainian military spokesman denied this, saying fighting in Soledar was continuing.
Prigozhin, 61 years old, who was known as “Putin’s boss” for his lucrative catering contracts and was indicted in the United States for interfering in the 2016 presidential election, has expanded his assets to include Wagner, as well as mining and other areas. He scathingly criticized senior army officers for mistakes made in Ukraine, saying Wagner was more effective than regular troops.
He found a powerful ally in Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who deployed elite troops from his region of southern Russia to fight in Ukraine and also attacked military leaders and the Kremlin for being too soft and indecisive.
Although both swore 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 on Wednesday, the Defense Ministry said Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov was named the new head of Russian forces in Ukraine, while former Commander-in-Chief General Sergei Surovikin, was demoted to Gerasimov’s deputy. after only three months of work.
The Washington-based Institute of the Study of War saw the reshuffle as an attempt by the Kremlin to “reaffirm the primacy of the Russian Ministry of Defense in an internal Russian power struggle”, to weaken the influence of its enemies and send a signal to Prigozhin and others to reduce their crits.
Prigozhin and Kadyrov repeatedly criticized Gerasimov, the main architect of the Russian operation in Ukraine, and held him responsible for military defeats while praising Surovikin.
Russian troops were forced to withdraw from Kyiv after a failed attempt to capture the Ukrainian capital in the first weeks of the war. In the fall, they hastily withdrew from the northeastern region of Kharkiv and the southern city of Kherson under the weight of a rapid Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Surovikin led the retreat from Kherson, the only regional center captured by Russia, and was credited with strengthening command and increasing discipline within the ranks. But a Ukrainian missile strike on January 1 in the eastern town of Makiivka killed dozens of Russian soldiers and tarnished its image.
Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya observed that Gerasimov’s appointment marked another attempt by Putin solve his military problems by shaking the brass.
“He tries to reshuffle the coins and therefore gives chances to those he finds persuasive,” she wrote. “But really, 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 backdrop of very tense discussions”. For Putin, “it’s a maneuver, a showdown between Surovikin (and sympathizers like Prigozhin) and Gerasimov,” she added.
Gerasimov, who began his military career as a Soviet Army tank officer in the 1970s, has been Chief of the General Staff since 2012 and was seen at the start of the conflict in February sitting next to the minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu at a very long table with Putin. His appointment to directly lead forces in Ukraine drew scathing comments from some Russian hawks.
Viktor Alksnis, a retired Soviet Air Force colonel who led botched attempts to preserve the USSR in 1991, noted that Gerasimov had overseen action in Ukraine even before his appointment.
“This decision reflects the understanding by our political and military leaders that the special military operation has failed and none of its objectives have been achieved in nearly a year of fighting,” Alksnis wrote on his channel. messaging app. “Replacing Surovikin with Gerasimov won’t change anything.”
Mark Galeotti, who is majoring in Russian military and security affairs at University College London, said the appointment gave Gerasimov “the most poisonous chalice” as he will now bear direct responsibility for any further setbacks.
“Gerasimov is hanging by a thread,” Galeotti said in a Twitter comment. “He needs some kind of victory or a career ends in ignominy. This might well suggest some sort of escalation.
Galeotti also warned that frequent reshuffling of Russian generals could erode allegiance within the officer corps.
“If you keep naming, spinning, burning your (relative) stars, setting unrealistic expectations, arbitrarily demoting them, it’s not going to earn loyalty,” he said.
Prigozhin, meanwhile, took advantage of military setbacks in Ukraine to expand his influence by making the Wagner Group a central part of the Russian fighting force, bolstering the regular army which suffered heavy attrition.
Ukrainian officials claimed that Wagner’s contractors suffered massive casualties in the fighting at Soledar and Bakhmut, advancing “on the bodies of their own comrades”.
Once convicted of assault and robbery, for which he served time in prison, Prigozhin has in recent months toured Russia’s vast network of penal colonies to recruit inmates to join Wagner’s forces to fight in Ukraine in exchange for pardons.
He recently posted a video showing around 20 convicts allowed to leave the ranks of combatants after a semester on the front line, while stating that anyone breaking ranks will face brutal punishment.
Footage released in the fall showed a Wagner contractor beaten to death with a hammer after allegedly defecting to the Ukrainian side. Despite public outrage and demands to investigate the incident, authorities turned a blind eye.
Observers have warned that by giving Prigozhin a free hand to lead Wagner as a private army governed by medieval-style rules, the government has effectively sown the dangerous seeds of possible upheaval.
“At the end of the day, there is chaos and the expansion of violence – extrajudicial and illegal,” predicted Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment.
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