Disagreements in the Russian military command seen amid the fighting in Ukraine

As Russian troops wage a ferocious house-to-house battle for control of strongholds in eastern Ukraine, a parallel battle is unfolding in the top echelons of military power in Moscow, with President Vladimir Putin reshuffled by his top generals as rival camps try to win his favor .

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

Putin’s shake-up of the military leadership this week is being seen as an attempt to show that the Defense Ministry still has his support and is responding as problematic conflict near the 11 month mark.

Prigogine was quick on Wednesday to announce that his mercenaries had captured Soledar, claiming that the prize had been won exclusively by Wagner. The Ministry of Defense disputed that characterization – describing the actions of airborne troops and other forces in combat – and on Friday claimed credit for taking the city. A Ukrainian army spokesman denied this, saying fighting in Soledar was continuing.

The The 61-year-old Prigogine, who was known as “Putin’s chef” for his lucrative catering contracts and was indicted in the US for meddling in the 2016 presidential election, has expanded his holdings to include Wagner, as well as mining and other areas. He sharply criticized the military leadership for mistakes in Ukraine, saying that Wagner was more effective than regular troops.

He has found a powerful ally in Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has deployed 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.

Although both have pledged 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 not seen before.

In the reshuffle announced Wednesday, the Defense Department said the Chief of Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, has been appointed as the new head of Russian forces in Ukraine, while the former top commander there, Gen. Sergey Surovikin, was demoted to Gerasimov’s deputy after only three months on the job.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War saw the move as an attempt by the Kremlin to “reassert the primacy of the Russian Defense Ministry in an internal Russian power struggle,” weaken the influence of its enemies and send a signal to Prigogine and others that to tone down their criticism.

Prigozhin and Kadyrov have repeatedly criticized Gerasimov, the chief architect of Russia’s 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 autumn, 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 in the ranks. But a Ukrainian missile strike on Jan. 1 in the eastern town of Makeevka killed dozens of Russian soldiers and tarnished his image.

Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya noted that Gerasimov’s appointment has yet to be marked another attempt by Putin to solve his military problems by shaking up power.

“He tries to move the pieces and therefore gives chances to those he finds convincing,” she wrote. “But really the problem is not the people, it’s the tasks.”

Stanovaya argued that Gerasimov could ask for “carte blanche in the midst of verbal battles amid some very tense discussions.” For Putin, “it’s a maneuvering, a tug-of-war between Surovikin (and sympathizers like Prigozhin) and Gerasimov,” she added.

Gerasimov, who began his military career as a tank officer in the Soviet Army 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 on a very long table with Putin. His appointment as direct command of forces in Ukraine drew scathing comments from some Russia hawks.

Viktor Alksnys, a retired Soviet Air Force colonel who led the failed attempt to preserve the USSR in 1991, noted that Gerasimov had been leading actions in Ukraine even before his appointment.

“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 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 issues at University College London, said the appointment gave Gerasimov “the most poisoned cup” as he would now bear direct responsibility for any further setbacks.

“Gerasimov is hanging in the balance,” Galeotti said in a Twitter comment. “He needs some sort of victory or his career ends in disgrace. This may suggest some kind of escalation.

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

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

Meanwhile, Prigozhin took advantage of the military setbacks in Ukraine to expand his influence by making the Wagner group a major element of the Russian fighting forces, augmenting the regular army, which had suffered severe attrition.

Ukrainian officials claim that Wagner’s contractors suffered heavy losses in the battles of Soledar and Bakhmut, advancing “on the bodies of their own comrades.”

Once convicted of assault and robbery, for which he served prison time, in recent months Prigozhin toured Russia’s vast network of penal colonies to recruit prisoners to join Wagner’s forces to fight in Ukraine in exchange for a pardon.

He recently released a video showing around 20 convicts being allowed to leave the ranks of the militants after half a year on the front line, while making it clear that anyone who breaks ranks will face brutal punishment.

Footage released in the fall showed a Wagnerian performer beaten to death with a hammer after allegedly defecting to the Ukrainian side. Despite public outrage and calls for an investigation into the incident, the authorities turned a blind eye to it.

Observers warned that by giving Prigogine the freedom to run Wagner as a private army governed by medieval-style rules, the government had effectively planted dangerous seeds of possible upheaval.

“In the end, there is chaos and an increase in violence – extrajudicial and illegal,” predicted Andrey Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment.


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