Rifts in Russian military command seen amid Ukraine fighting

As the Russian military wages a fierce house-to-house battle for control of strongholds in eastern Ukraine, a parallel battle is taking place at the highest echelons of military power in Moscow, as President Vladimir Putin reshuffles his top generals and rival camps try to curry favor.

Battles over the salt mines of Soledar and the nearby city of Bakhmut highlighted the bitter rift between the leadership of Russia’s Defense Ministry and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the rogue millionaire whose private military force known as the Wagner Group is playing an increasingly visible role in Ukraine.

Putin’s shakedown of the military gates this week was seen as a bid to show that the Defense Ministry still has his support and responsibility for the troubled conflict. approaching the 11-month mark.

Prigozhin was quick to announce on Wednesday that his mercenary forces had captured Soledar, claiming that Wagner alone had won the prize. The Defense Ministry disputed that description of the actions of the airborne troops and other forces in the battle, saying on Friday that it took credit for the capture of the city.. A spokesman for the Ukrainian military denied this, saying that fighting in Soledar was continuing.

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

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

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

In a reshuffle announced Wednesday, the Defense Ministry said Chief of General Staff General Valery Gerasimov was named the new commander 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 for Military Studies saw the reshuffle as an attempt by the Kremlin to “reassert the primacy of the Russian Defense Ministry in Russia’s internal power struggle,” weaken the influence of its enemies and send a signal to Prigozhin and others to tone down their criticism.

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

Russian troops were forced to withdraw from Kiev after a failed attempt to capture the Ukrainian capital in the first weeks of the war. In autumn, they hastily withdrew from the northeastern Kharkiv region and the southern city of Kherson, hitting a quick Ukrainian counterattack.

Surovikin led the retreat from Kherson, the only regional center captured by Russia, and was credited with strengthening leadership and increasing discipline in the ranks. But on January 1, a Ukrainian missile strike in the eastern city of Makiivka killed scores of Russian soldiers and tarnished his image.

Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya noted that the appointment of Gerasimov was another attempt by Putin. to solve their military problems by shaking brass.

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“He tries to rearrange the pieces and therefore gives chances to those he finds compelling,” she wrote. “But really the problem is not the people, but the tasks at hand.”

Stanovaya claimed that Gerasimov could have made the request “together in the midst of verbal battles, when there are very tense discussions.” For Putin, “this is 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. February. at the start of the conflict, he was seen sitting next to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at a very long table. Viburnum. His appointment to directly command forces in Ukraine drew comments from some Russian hawks.

Viktoras Alksnis, retired colonel of the Soviet Air Force, in 1991. who led the failed attempts to preserve the USSR, noted that Gerasimov oversaw 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 goals have been achieved during the nearly year-long struggle,” Alksnis wrote on his message 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 Gerasimov’s appointment was “the most poisoned of the cups” because he would now be directly responsible for any further failures.

“Gerasimov is hanging in the balance,” Galeotti commented on Twitter. “He needs some kind of victory or his career will end in ignominy.” This may indicate some escalation.

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

“If you keep dividing, changing, burning your (relative) stars, raising unrealistic expectations, arbitrarily lowering them, you won’t win loyalty,” he said.

Meanwhile, Prigozhin used the military setbacks in Ukraine to increase his influence, making the Wagner group a key element of Russia’s fighting forces, augmenting the regular army, which had suffered severe attrition.

Ukrainian officials said Wagner’s contractors suffered heavy losses during the fighting in Soledar and Bakhmute, advancing “on top of the bodies of their comrades.”

Once convicted of assault and robbery for which he served prison terms, Prigozhin has in recent months toured Russia’s sprawling network of penal colonies to recruit inmates to join Wagner’s forces fighting in Ukraine in exchange for clemency.

He recently released a video showing about 20 convicts allowed to leave the ranks of the militants after half a year on the front line, also making it clear that those who break ranks face brutal punishment.

Footage released in the fall shows a Wagner contractor being beaten to death with a hammer after allegedly defecting 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 command Wagner as a private army governed by medieval-style rules, the government was actually sowing the dangerous seeds of potential coups.

“What ends up is chaos and violence — extrajudicial and illegal,” predicted Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment.


Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine


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