As Russian forces wage a fierce house-to-house battle for holdouts in eastern Ukraine, a parallel battle unfolds in the upper echelons of military power in Moscow, with President Vladimir Putin rearranging his top generals as rival camps try to win him over. favor.
Fighting for the salt-mining town of Solidar and the neighboring city of Bakhmut He highlighted the bitter rift between Russia’s Defense Ministry leadership and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the rogue millionaire whose private military force known as the Wagner Group has played an increasingly visible role in Ukraine.
Putin’s shake-up of military officers this week was seen as an attempt to show the Defense Ministry still has his support and is responsible for the volatile conflict. Approaching the 11-month mark.
On Wednesday Prigozhin was quick to announce that his mercenary force had taken over Solidar, arguing that Wagner had won the prize exclusively. The Department of Defense challenged that characterization – describing the action of the Airborne and other forces in the battle – and on Friday claimed responsibility for the town’s capture.. A Ukrainian military spokesman denied this, saying fighting in Solidar was continuing.
61-year-old Prigozhin, who was known as “Putin’s chef” because of his lucrative catering services contracts, and was charged with interfering in the 2016 presidential election, expanded his assets to include Wagner, as well as mining and other areas. He sharply criticized the military officers for their blunders in Ukraine, saying that Wagner was more efficient than the regular troops.
He has found a powerful ally in Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has deployed elite forces from his region of southern Russia to fight in Ukraine, and has also attacked the military leadership and the Kremlin for being too soft and indecisive.
And while both have pledged allegiance to Putin, their public attacks on his top generals have openly challenged the Kremlin’s monopoly on such criticism, something that Russia’s tightly controlled political system has never seen before.
In a cabinet reshuffle announced Wednesday, the defense ministry said the chief of the general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, had been named the new commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, while the former top commander there, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, had been demoted to Gerasimov’s deputy. After only three months on the job.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War saw the cabinet reshuffle as an attempt by the Kremlin to “reassert the primacy of the Russian Defense Ministry in an internal struggle for Russian power,” weaken the influence of its opponents, and send a signal to Prigozhin and others to lessen their criticism.
Prigozhin and Kadyrov have repeatedly criticized Gerasimov, the chief architect of Russia’s operation in Ukraine, holding him responsible for the military defeats while praising Surovkin.
Russian forces 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 swift Ukrainian counterattack.
Surovkin led the retreat from Kherson, the only territorial center captured by Russia, and was credited with strengthening leadership and increasing discipline in the ranks. But a Ukrainian missile attack on Jan. 1 on the eastern town of Makievka killed dozens of Russian troops and tarnished his image.
Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya notes that Gerasimov’s appointment represents yet another attempt by Putin To solve his military problems by shaking the officers.
“He tries to rearrange the pieces, thus giving chances to whomever he deems convincing,” she wrote. “But in fact, 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 midst of battles of words against the backdrop of some very tense discussions”. She added that for Putin, “this is a gambit, a tug of war between Surovikin (and sympathizers like Prigozhin) and Gerasimov.”
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 Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at a very long table with his seat. His appointment to lead forces in Ukraine drew scathing comments from some Russian hawks.
Viktor Aleksnis, the retired Soviet Air Force colonel who led failed attempts to preserve the Soviet Union in 1991, noted that Gerasimov oversaw the operation in Ukraine even before his appointment.
Alexis wrote on his channel on the messaging application: “This decision reflects the understanding of our political and military leadership that the special military operation has failed and none of its objectives have been achieved during nearly a year of fighting.” “Replacing Surovikin with Gerasimov will not change anything.”
Mark Galeotti, a specialist in Russian military and security affairs at University College London, said the appointment handed Gerasimov “the most poisoned cup” as he would now bear direct responsibility for any further setbacks.
“Gerasimov is hanging by a thread,” Galeotti said in a post on Twitter. “He needs some kind of win, or his career ends in disgrace. This could indicate some kind of escalation.”
Galeotti also warned that the frequent change of Russian generals could undermine loyalty in the officer corps.
“If you keep assigning, rotating, burning your (relative) stars, setting unrealistic expectations, arbitrarily demoting them, he won’t earn that loyalty,” he said.
Meanwhile, Prigozhin took advantage of the military setbacks in Ukraine to expand his influence by making the Wagner Group a pivotal component of Russia’s fighting power, increasing the size of the regular army, which was suffering from significant attrition.
Ukrainian officials claimed that Wagner’s contractors had suffered heavy losses in the fighting at Soledar and Bakhmut, as they had advanced “over the bodies of their comrades”.
Once convicted of assault and robbery, for which he had served time in prison, Prigozhin in recent months went on a tour of Russia’s sprawling network of penal colonies to recruit colleagues to join Wagner’s forces to fight in Ukraine in exchange for amnesty.
He recently released a video showing about 20 convicts who were allowed to leave the ranks of the fighters after half a year on the front line, while also making it clear that anyone who breaks the ranks will face harsh punishment.
Footage released in the fall showed a Wagner contractor being beaten to death with a sledgehammer after he defected to the Ukrainian side. Despite public outrage and demands to investigate the incident, the authorities turned a blind eye to it.
Observers warned that by giving Prigozhin a free hand to run Wagner as a private army governed by medieval-style rules, the government had effectively sowed dangerous seeds of potential unrest.
Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, predicted: “In the end, there is anarchy and an expansion of violence – extrajudicial and illegal.”
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