How internal conflict is shaping Russia's war effort


As the war in Ukraine continues, divisions are emerging amongst Russian forces

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By James Loughton

On Friday 5 May, a shocking video emerged showing notorious mercenary chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, standing over the corpses of Russian soldiers. Delivering an expletive-filled tirade against Russia’s military leaders, Prigozhin blamed Defence Minister, Sergey Shoigu, and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, for losses at Bakhmut. Prighozin later threatened to pull all Wagner troops out of Bakhmut, claiming that a lack of ammunition formed part of a larger intentional attack from Russia’s military command against Wagner due to “petty envy”.

The BBC report that Prighozin has U-turned and his troops will remain, following communications with General Sergei Surovikin. However, the theatrical dispute highlights the acute internal divisions within the invading Russian forces. Prigozhin is no stranger to harsh criticism of Russia’s military elite, previously accusing them of “high treason” in February. Putin’s Chef (nicknamed for his culinary empire and close friendship with the Russian leader) is not the only one unafraid to speak out. Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, has shared similar sentiment. The Kyiv Post reported his endorsements of Prighozin’s criticisms, also attacking the Ministry of Defence for numerous troop withdrawals.

Kadyrov personally commands a large special forces unit, nicknamed the Kadyrovites. Although nominally under the authority of the Russian National Guard, the Royal United Services Institute claims it acts as Kadyrov’s 'private army'. Similar to Prighozin’s personal grip over Wagner forces. The autonomous nature of these two forces and the political power they possess provides their leaders with a unique freedom to attack the conduct of the invasion. Together they represent a new face of Russian politics, strongmen carving out their own cults of personalities, unbound by the constraints of traditional political hierarchy. Kadyrov’s brutal rule over Chechnya has kept Islamist insurgents at bay, whilst the Brookings Institute has accused Prighozin’s mercenary force of acting as an unorthodox geopolitical network, unofficially connecting the Russian government to strategic conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East.

Their positions are currently indisposable, potentially the reason for their confidence, however, they may also serve another benefit to Putin. The invasion of Ukraine has been incredibly problematic. Politico reported in January that hardline nationalists are frustrated with continued military setbacks, seeing Russia as no closer to defeating Ukraine than it was in February 2022. The collapse of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson offensives was disastrous to war morale and domestic pressure is mounting. Studies have shown that a growing number of Russian citizens now consider the war to be unsuccessful. Thus, Prighozin, Kadyrov along with other figures have provided a voice for Russians enraged by military setbacks. Yet they never point in the direction of Putin’s hegemonic presence.

The intra-elite conflict between nationalists and military officials has allowed Putin to divert blame away from himself and towards his generals. Putin has stated that he wishes to stay neutral in the conflict, allowing attacks on the Ministry of Defence to protect his own reputation as Commander in Chief. General Alexander Lapin, formerly commanding Russia’s largest military district, was fired following a bitter dispute with Kadyrov over Russia’s loss of Lyman. This allowed the Kremlin to absolve itself of responsibility, placing a crushing disaster on a single person. Pirghozin’s harsh language, for example, stating that generals, “should be shipped to the front barefoot with machine guns”, never progresses further to attacking the Kremlin. Both have been careful to avoid direct disapproval of Putin’s leadership, instead portraying the leader fighting for a glorious Russian victory but constrained by military incompetence and corruption.

A Trumpian deep-state existing at the upper echelons of Russian politics, composed of military and business elite working against Putin, unwilling to devote themselves to total war in Ukraine, has become a popular talking point amongst Russian nationalists on social media. Prighozin has claimed that a deep state exists which is “ready to join forces with any ally or enemy for the sake of its own interests”. Prominent pro-war blogger, Vladlen Tatarsky, was killed in an explosion in a cafe in St Petersburg in March. Before his death, he had amassed over 560,000 followers on Telegram. His posts frequently attacked the defence ministry, accusing it of not devoting entirely to Russia’s “holy war”. The Guardian reports that, unlike anti-war activists who have been routinely arrested and blocked from accessing the internet, the pro-war blogging community has faced little pushback. Instead of suppressing criticisms of poor management of the war, the Kremlin has used it to fan the flames of nationalism. Redirecting potential anger towards the Kremlin into a desire for increased military involvement.

Dozens of Pentagon documents, leaked in April, included information regarding Russian infighting, confirming a genuine conflict between the Ministry of Defence and pro-Russian paramilitaries. The Times reported that documents found the MoD “obfuscating” casualties by excluding deaths from Wagner and Chechen troops. By doing so, the Russian military command is attempting to reduce the information about how devastating casualties truly are, in doing so denying the impact of Prighozin and Kadyrov’s troops. So whilst Putin may be temporarily politically benefiting from this dispute, the division in his forces is undoubtedly reducing Russia’s effectiveness. Benefiting Ukraine in its defence against the invaders.

It is to be seen how much longer Prighozin and Kadyrov will refrain from directly implicating Putin in the disastrous invasion. There has been persistent speculation over Putin’s health and with no clear successor in line, the battle for Russia’s presidency could soon be underway. Kadyrov has made it clear he intends to expand his political influence beyond Chechnya. It has been suggested his comments on stepping down from his position as Head of Chechnya may be a signal to Putin that he desires more. Meanwhile, a report found that Prighozin is developing close connections with State Duma members, theorising this could be part of a larger plan to officially enter into Russian politics. Their alliance against the Moscow establishment with the support of hardline nationalists could erupt into a greater conflict, weakening the already fragile Russian state.