Against the background of hostilities in Ukraine, there are splits in the Russian military command

As Russian troops wage a fierce house-to-house battle for control of strongholds in eastern Ukraine, a parallel battle is unfolding in the highest echelons of military power in Moscow, as President Vladimir Putin reshuffles his top generals and rival camps try to claim victory.

Battles for the Saledar salt mines and the neighboring 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 prominent role in Ukraine.

Putin’s military reshuffle this week has been seen as an attempt to show that the Defense Department still has his support and is in charge. uneasy conflict approaching the 11-month mark.

On Wednesday, Prigozhin was quick to claim that his mercenary forces had captured Saledar, a claim that Ukrainian officials rejected. Furthermore, his claim that Wagner alone received the award contradicts Defense Department reports describing the actions of airborne troops and other forces in the Battle of Saledar.

The 61-year-old Prigozhin, who was known as “Putin’s Chef” for his lucrative catering contracts and was accused in the US of 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 gross 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 criticized the military leadership and the Kremlin for being too soft and indecisive.

Although both have sworn allegiance to Putin, their public attacks on his top generals have openly challenged the Kremlin’s monopoly on such criticism, something never before seen in Russia’s tightly controlled political system.

In a reshuffle announced on Wednesday, the Defense Ministry said Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov has been named the new commander of Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine, while the former commander-in-chief there, General Sergei Suravikin, has been demoted to Deputy Gerasimov after just three months on the job. .

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War saw the reshuffle as an attempt by the Kremlin to “reassert the primacy of the Russian Defense Ministry in Russia’s domestic power struggle,” weaken the influence of its opponents and send a signal to Prigozhin and others to tone down their criticism.

Prigozhin and Kadyrov repeatedly criticized Gerasimov, the main architect of the Russian operation in Ukraine, and blamed him for military defeats, while praising Surovikin.

Russian troops were forced to retreat from Kiev after a failed attempt to capture the Ukrainian capital in the first weeks of the war. In autumn, they hastily retreated from the northeastern Kharkiv region and the southern city of Kherson under the impact 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 the January 1 Ukrainian missile attack on the eastern city of Makeyevka killed many Russian soldiers and damaged its image.

Political scientist Tatsiana Stanovaya noted that Gerasimov’s appointment is not yet significant another attempt by Putin to solve his war problems by stirring the spirit.

“He tries to shuffle the pieces and therefore gives chances to those he finds convincing,” she wrote. “But in reality, the problem is not in people, but in the tasks facing us.”

Stanovaya claimed that Gerasimov could have asked for “carte blanche in the heat of verbal battles against the background of some very tense discussions.” For Putin, “this is maneuvering, a tug-of-war between Suravikin (and sympathizers such as 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 next to Defense Minister Sergei Shaigu at a very long table with Insert. His appointment to direct forces in Ukraine drew scathing comments from some Russia hawks.

Viktor Alksnis, a retired Soviet Air Force colonel who led the failed attempt to preserve the USSR in 1991, noted that Gerasimov had been in charge of operations 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 nearly a year of combat,” 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 Gerasimov’s appointment was “the most poisoned of spells” as he would now bear direct responsibility for any further setbacks.

“Gerasimov is hanging by a thread,” Galeotti said in a comment on Twitter. “He needs some kind of victory, otherwise his career will end in disgrace. This may well indicate some kind of escalation.”

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

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

Meanwhile, Prigozhin took advantage of the military setbacks in Ukraine to expand his influence, making the Wagner Group a key element of Russia’s fighting forces, augmenting a heavily depleted regular army.

Ukrainian officials claim that the Wagner PMC contractors suffered huge losses in the battles in Saledar and Bakhmut, stepping “on the bodies of their comrades.”

After being convicted of assault and robbery, for which he served time, Prigozhin toured Russia’s vast network of penitentiaries in recent months to recruit inmates to join Wagner’s forces to fight in Ukraine in exchange for a pardon.

He recently published a video showing about 20 convicts who were allowed to leave the ranks of the fighters after six months on the front line, and made it clear that those who break ranks will be severely punished.

Footage released in the fall shows a Wagner PVC contractor being beaten to death with a sledgehammer after he allegedly defected to Ukraine. Despite public outrage and demands to investigate the incident, the authorities turned a blind eye to it.

Observers warn that by giving Prigozhin a free rein to run Wagner PMC as a private army governed by medieval-style rules, the government has effectively sown the dangerous seeds of potential upheaval.

“In the end, there is chaos and an increase in violence – extrajudicial and illegal,” predicted Andrei Kalesnikov, an analyst from the Carnegie Endowment.

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