Rifts in Russian military command seen amid Ukraine fighting

13 January 2023, 14:34

Russian self-propelled 152.4 mm howitzers Msta fire on a mission at an undisclosed location in Ukraine
Russia Ukraine. Picture: PA

President Vladimir Putin’s shake-up of the military brass was seen as a bid to show that the Defence Ministry still has his support.

As Russian troops wage a ferocious house-to-house fight 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 reshuffling his top generals while rival camps try to win his favour.

The fighting for the salt mining town of Soledar and the nearby city of Bakhmut has highlighted a bitter rift between the Russian Defence 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.

Mr Putin’s shake-up of the military brass this week was seen as a bid to show that the Defence Ministry still has his support and is in charge as the troubled conflict nears the 11-month mark.

Prigozhin rushed on Wednesday to declare that his mercenary force had captured Soledar, arguing that the prize was won exclusively by Wagner.

Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin
Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin (AP)

The Defence Ministry waited until Friday to announce its capture, saying without mentioning Wagner that it became possible thanks to air and artillery strikes and airborne forces’ manoeuvres. A Ukrainian army spokesman denied that, saying the country’s troops were still in Soledar.

Prigozhin fired back at the Defence Ministry, saying “they are constantly trying to steal Wagner’s victory”.

The Defence Ministry has challenged that characterisation – describing action by airborne troops and other forces in the battle – and claimed credit for taking the town on Friday. A Ukrainian army spokesman denied that, saying fighting in Soledar continued.

The 61-year-old Prigozhin, 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 assets to include Wagner, as well as mining and other spheres.

He has scathingly criticised the military brass for blunders in Ukraine, saying Wagner was more efficient than regular troops.

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

While both have pledged loyalty to Mr Putin, their public attacks on his top generals openly challenged the Kremlin’s monopoly on such criticism, something that Russia’s tightly controlled political system had not seen before.

In the reshuffle announced on Wednesday, the Defence Ministry said the head of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, was named the new chief of Russian forces in Ukraine, while the former top commander there, General Sergei Surovikin, was demoted to Gen Gerasimov’s deputy after only three months on the job.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, with Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, right, and General Valery Gerasimov
Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, with Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, right, and General Valery Gerasimov (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

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

Prigozhin and Kadyrov have repeatedly criticised Gen Gerasimov, the main architect of the Russian operation in Ukraine, and held him responsible for military defeats while praising Gen Surovikin.

Russian troops were forced to retreat from Kyiv after a botched attempt to capture the Ukrainian capital in the opening weeks of the war.

In the autumn, they hastily pulled back from the north-eastern Kharkiv region and the southern city of Kherson under the brunt of a swift Ukrainian counter-offensive.

Gen Surovikin directed the retreat from Kherson, the only regional centre captured by Russia, and was credited for shoring up command and increasing discipline in the ranks.

But a Ukrainian missile strike on January 1 in the eastern town of Makiivka killed scores of Russian troops and tainted his image.

Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya observed that Gen Gerasimov’s appointment marked yet another attempt by Mr Putin to resolve his military problems by shaking up the brass.

“He is trying to reshuffle the pieces and is therefore giving chances to those who he finds persuasive,” she wrote.

Chechnya’s regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov
Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

“But in reality, the problem is not with the people, but with the tasks at hand.”

Ms Stanovaya argued that Gen Gerasimov could have asked for “carte blanche in the heat of verbal battles against the background of some very tense discussions”.

For Mr Putin, “this is manoeuvring, a tug-of-war between Surovikin (and sympathisers like Prigozhin) and Gerasimov”, she added.

Gen 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 defence minister Sergei Shoigu at a very long table with Mr Putin.

His appointment to directly lead the forces in Ukraine drew stinging 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 Gen Gerasimov had overseen the action in Ukraine even before his appointment.

“This decision reflects the understanding by our political and military leadership that the special military operation has failed and none of its goals has been fulfilled in nearly a year of fighting,” Mr Alksnis wrote on his messaging app channel.

A Russian self-propelled 152.4 mm howitzer Msta fires on a mission at an undisclosed location in Ukraine
A Russian self-propelled 152.4 mm howitzer Msta fires on a mission at an undisclosed location in Ukraine (Russian Defence Ministry Press Service via AP)

“Replacing Surovikin with Gerasimov will change nothing.”

Mark Galeotti, who specialises in Russian military and security affairs at University College, London, said the appointment handed Gen Gerasimov “the most poisoned of chalices” as he now will bear direct responsibility for any more setbacks.

“Gerasimov is hanging by a thread,” Mr Galeotti said in a commentary on Twitter.

“He needs some kind of win, or a career ends in ignominy. This may well suggest some kinds of escalation.”

Mr Galeotti also warned that frequent reshuffling of Russia’s generals could erode allegiance in the officer corps.

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

Prigozhin, meanwhile, has taken advantage of military setbacks in Ukraine to expand his clout by making the Wagner Group a pivotal element of the Russian fighting force, augmenting the regular army that has suffered a heavy attrition.

Smoke billows during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine
Smoke billows during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine (Libkos/AP)

Ukrainian officials alleged Wagner contractors were suffering massive losses in the fighting in 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 in recent months went on a tour of Russia’s sprawling network of penal colonies to recruit inmates to join Wagner’s forces to fight in Ukraine in exchange for pardons.

He recently released a video showing about 20 convicts allowed to leave the ranks of fighters after half a year on the front line, while also making clear that anyone breaking ranks will face brutal punishment.

Footage posted 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 demands to investigate the incident, authorities have turned a blind eye to it.

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

“In the end, there is chaos and the expansion of violence – extrajudicial and illegal,” predicted Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment.

By Press Association

Latest World News

See more Latest World News

Thailand Thaksin

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra indicted for royal defamation

APTOPIX Papua New Guinea Landslide

Mass evacuations in Papua New Guinea amid fears of further landslides

APTOPIX Israel Palestinians

Algeria proposes UN resolution demanding Israel halt offensive in Rafah

Venezuela Election

Venezuela revoke EU invitation to observe nation’s presidential election in July

Garry Conille

Transitional council in Haiti selects new PM for country under siege by gangs

Former US pesident Donald Trump sits with lawyers while he attends his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City

Trump trial: Prosecutor focuses on ‘cover-up’ while defence attacks key witness

Smoke billows after an explosion in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel

Israeli strikes continue near Gaza’s Rafah

Aid pier

US-built aid pier in Gaza will need to be removed after damage from rough seas

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Zelensky expected in Normandy for D-Day commemorations, says Macron

Former US president Donald Trump speaks to members of the media upon arriving at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York

Key witness lied, Donald Trump’s lawyer tells jurors during closing arguments

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Zelensky secures further promise of military aid as he continues EU tour

US Army soldiers assigned to the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary), US Navy sailors assigned to Amphibious Construction Battalion 1, and Israel Defence Forces placing the Trident Pier on the

Gaza aid via temporary pier suspended after rough seas cause damage – officials

Top NFL player accused of sexual assault by two flight attendants aboard London-bound flight

Top NFL player accused of sexual assault by two flight attendants aboard London-bound flight

Producer Albert S Ruddy appears backstage after his film Million Dollar Baby won best picture at the 77th Academy Awards on February 27 2005 in Los Angeles

Albert Ruddy, Oscar-winning producer of The Godfather, dies aged 94

Sam Altman

OpenAI boss Sam Altman joins Giving Pledge

Robert De Niro speaks to reporters in support of President Joe Biden across the street from former president Donald Trump’s criminal trial in New York

Biden campaign sends De Niro to Trump trial to put focus on 2021 Capitol attack