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Infighting Among Putin's Lieutenants Hurts Russia's War Footing, if Not His Hold on Power
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By Associated Press
Published 10 months ago on
June 23, 2023

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The video was shocking — not just for what it showed but also for what was said.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the outspoken millionaire head of the private military contractor Wagner, stood in front of the bloodied bodies of his slain troops in Ukraine and yelled expletive-riddled insults at Russian military leaders, blaming them for the carnage.

“They came here as volunteers and they died to let you lounge in your red wood offices,” Prigozhin shouted. “You are sitting in your expensive clubs, your children are enjoying good living and filming videos on YouTube. Those who don’t give us ammunition will be eaten alive in hell!”

It was a disquieting display for Russians used to more than two decades of rigidly controlled rule by President Vladimir Putin — years with little sign of infighting among his top lieutenants.

Prigozhin’s video in May and his other rants against the military leadership have been met with silence from Putin, as well as the brass. Some see Putin’s failure to squelch the infighting as a sign of potential shifts in Russia’s political scene that set the stage for more internal battles.

Prigozhin’s rift with the military has been ignored by state-controlled TV, where most Russians get their news, although it is followed closely by the politically active, ultrapatriotic readers and viewers on social media networks, which share his contempt for military leaders.

Signs of Dysfunction

While there are no indications that Putin is losing influence, “there are growing signs of deep dysfunction, anxiety, worry about the war and real problems in marshaling the resources necessary to fight it effectively,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the editor of its Strategic Survey.

Prigozhin’s feud with military leaders goes back years, and it spilled into the open amid the fighting for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut that was spearheaded by his mercenaries. It has pushed the 62-year-old Wagner owner, dubbed “Putin’s chef” for his lucrative Kremlin catering contracts, to the forefront of Russian politics and signaled his growing ambitions.

He scathingly criticized Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, as weak and incompetent in mocking statements full of vulgar language. At one point, he even alleged the army planted mines on the route his fighters planned to use and opened fire at them.

With his crude remarks, Prigozhin ventured into territory where only Putin had gone before: Over the years, the Russian leader occasionally broke decorum with an earthy remark or off-color joke, while top officials used carefully worded language.

In a later video, Prigozhin made a statement that some have interpreted as a thinly veiled attack on Putin himself. He declared that while his men were dying due to the Defense Ministry’s failure to supply ammunition, a “happy granddad is thinking he’s doing well,” and then referred to that “granddad” with an obscenity.

The blunt comment caused a social media uproar, where it was broadly seen as a reference to Putin. Prigozhin later said he was talking about Gerasimov.

“Prigozhin is now sailing much closer to the wind than he ever has,” Gould-Davies told The Associated Press.

Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political commentator, described Prigozhin as “the second-most popular man after Putin” and a “symbol of Russia’s military victory for millions of people.”

Putin needs Prigozhin’s mercenaries at a time when the regular military is still recovering from setbacks earlier in the invasion. The Wagner chief’s position was bolstered after the private army captured Bakhmut last month in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle, relying on tens of thousands of convicts who were promised pardons if they survived six months of fighting.

“Putin dominates the system, but he still sort of depends upon a small number of big people to implement his will, to provide him with resources to carry out his orders, including fighting the war,” Gould-Davies told AP.

While Putin may adhere to keeping various factions divided and then intervening to “decide who wins and who loses, and who’s up and who’s down,” the process erodes the government’s authority in wartime, Gould-Davies said.

“That may be a way of keeping the political system going, but it’s certainly not the way to fight the war, because if your military forces are divided and if they’re not fighting together effectively, then your military operations will suffer accordingly and that’s exactly what’s happening here,” he said.

Mark Galeotti, a London-based expert on Russian politics and security, noted the infighting was continuing even as Ukraine is in the early stages of its long-expected counteroffensive — “a point when really everyone should have one single common goal.”

In a recent podcast, he speculated that Putin’s failure to resolve political disputes could be rooted in a lack of interest, a focus on other issues or, more likely, a reluctance to take sides.

“It also raises questions about his overall capacity to do his job,” Galeotti said. “This is the one thing, the one job he can’t really outsource, and he’s not even trying.”

The lack of response from military leaders to Prigozhin’s insults appeared to indicate they weren’t sure if Putin was on their side.

St. Petersburg regional Gov. Alexander Beglov was another recent Prigozhin target, following their long-standing conflict rooted in Beglov’s reluctance to award lucrative contracts to Prigozhin’s companies. Just like the military leaders, Beglov has not responded.

Prigozhin has allied with other hawkish officials, reportedly including Tula Gov. Alexei Dyumin, a former Putin bodyguard seen by many as a potential successor. The Wagner head also gravitated for some time toward Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed regional leader of Chechnya. While denouncing most senior military leaders, Prigozhin spoke approvingly about Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who led Russian forces in Ukraine for several months before Putin appointed Gerasimov to oversee the operations.

But some of those alliances have been shaky.

While Kadyrov initially praised Prigozhin and backed some of his criticism of the military leaders, he later shifted course and criticized him for sounding defeatist. Kadyrov’s lieutenants went further, blasting Wagner’s efforts in Bakhmut after Prigozhin made dismissive comments about Chechen fighters in Ukraine. Kadyrov’s right-hand man, Magomed Daudov, bluntly said Prigozhin would have been executed for such statements during World War II.

Prigozhin quickly backed off, saying he was only expressing concern about Russian operations.

Prigozhin has dodged questions about his ambitions, but in a move that reflected his desire to gain political clout, he recently toured Russia, continuing a barrage of blustery comments.

“There are signs that he seeks some sort of political future,” Gould-Davies observed.

Even though Prigozhin owes his position and wealth to Putin, he’s playing the role of outsider with his criticism of some leaders and by trying to appeal to the masses amid setbacks in Ukraine, said Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Endowment.

“He is posturing as an enemy of the elites, even though he is a product of Putin’s system, the embodiment of his regime and state contracts,” Kolesnikov said. “Prigozhin is playing an independent politician, raising the stakes and testing the system’s limits. But it’s only technically and physically possible for as long as Putin finds him useful and is amused by his escapades.”

In a show of support for the military, Putin backed the Defense Ministry’s demand for all private companies to sign contracts with it — something Prigozhin has refused to do.

And in another sign Putin’s administration may finally be cutting Prigozhin down to size, messaging app channels connected to the Kremlin carried photos of his partying children, including a daughter in Dubai, in apparent retaliation for Prigozhin’s attacks on the defense minister’s daughter.

Prigozhin has urged all-out war with Ukraine, including a total nationwide mobilization and the introduction of martial law in Russia — calls welcomed by some hawks.

But Kolesnikov notes that the vast majority of Russians who are mostly apathetic or unwilling to make larger sacrifices could be frightened and appalled by that message.

He cautions against overestimating Prigozhin’s clout and political prospects, and underestimating Putin’s authority.

“It’s enough for the commander-in-chief to move his finger to make the Wagner chief disappear,” Kolesnikov said.

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