Power struggles in Russia, as Winston Churchill is reputed to have said, are akin to bulldogs fighting under a carpet: Onlookers hear only the growls, until a winner finally emerges.
Much is unclear about what’s happening inside Russia’s official structures as President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine – which was supposed to result in conquest within a matter of days – approaches the one-year mark. But outsiders can hear the growls emanating from behind the Kremlin’s walls.
The only thing that’s plain is that it’s still Mr. Putin who calls the shots, maintaining his authority by playing factions against each other so they see him as the sole arbiter of their disputes.
This is how the former KGB agent has ruled since coming to power at the turn of the century: Create a divide, then preside over the quarrel.
When Mr. Putin first took office in 2000, it was liberal reformers and throwback statists who competed for his favour. Later, it was pro-Western doves and Cold War hawks who pitched their ideas to the boss. Now that those battles are over and Mr. Putin’s regime has moved to outright authoritarianism and aggression, the competing factions are the formal military command and the freelance operatives who believe Russia should resort to even more brutal tactics to achieve its aims.
The latest skirmish under the rug resulted in Valery Gerasimov, already the Chief of the General Staff, assuming direct authority over what the Kremlin still calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine. General Sergey Surovikin, the top commander in Ukraine for the past three months, was demoted to become one of Gen. Gerasimov’s three deputies for the campaign.
The move comes after months of intense criticism of Gen. Gerasimov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu emanating from a group of hardliners headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a long-time Putin confidant who shot to prominence through his control of the Wagner Group, a private military organization that has fought alongside the Kremlin’s friends in the Middle East and Africa.
Sergey Markov, a hawkish political analyst with Kremlin connections, told The Globe and Mail that the shuffle was influenced by the Wagner Group’s rising influence. “It’s the Wagnerization of the Russian army. One of the reasons for the success of Wagner is its lack of military bureaucracy. All of the information from the ground goes to Prigozhin very quickly. It’s a big difference from the Russian army.”
Now, Mr. Markov said, Gen. Gerasimov will receive updates directly, as Mr. Prigozhin does, and will “be able to make commands stronger and faster.”
But the practical effects of Wednesday’s shuffle seem less important than the political implications.
Mr. Prigozhin and his allies, most notably Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, have mounted an increasingly open campaign to pin the blame for Russia’s military failures in Ukraine on Mr. Shoigu and Gen. Gerasimov. In late December, a video emerged in which Wagner mercenaries – whose ranks include tens of thousands of former convicts released from prison to join the war – used expletives to refer to Gen. Gerasimov, accusing the top general of leaving men on the front line without enough ammunition. “We are fighting against the entire Ukrainian army near Bakhmut. Where are you? It’s about time you help us,” one masked fighter said.
The conflict escalated on Dec. 28 when Mr. Prigozhin backed his mercenaries in their criticism of the general. “The guys asked me to pass along that when you’re sitting in a warm office, it’s hard to hear the problems on the front line,” Mr. Prigozhin said via his press service when asked to comment on the video. “But when you’re dragging the dead bodies of your friends every day, and seeing them for the last time, then supplies are very much needed. And you want everyone to stir and at least in some way to think about how it is for those on the front line.”
This week, Mr. Prigozhin upped the ante when he claimed that Wagner, and Wagner alone, had captured the salt-mining town of Soledar, in the southeastern Donbas region, near the fiercely contested city of Bakhmut. While Ukrainian officials say the battle for Soledar is continuing, Mr. Prigozhin posed in full battle gear for a photograph with half a dozen of his men Wednesday inside what looked to be part of the town’s sprawling complex of salt mines.
At the same time, he and Mr. Kadyrov – whose Chechen fighters are, like Wagner, notorious for their indifference to the rules of war – have praised Gen. Surovikin for stabilizing the front line in Ukraine. Gen. Surovikin took command of the war in October, in the wake of a Ukrainian counteroffensive that pushed Russian troops out of the eastern Kharkiv region. It was his decision to withdraw forces from the southern city of Kherson to more defensible positions on the east bank of the Dnipro River.
But Gen. Surovikin hasn’t been able to reclaim the initiative in a war that has seen Ukraine, bolstered by a supply of advanced Western weaponry, push Russia out of 40 per cent of the territory it seized earlier in the war. Wagner’s victory in Soledar, if confirmed, would represent the first significant Russian territorial gain in months.
Mr. Putin may have sensed that Gen. Gerasimov was growing tired of Mr. Prigozhin’s antics. Some military analysts have predicted a new Russian offensive may soon follow, allowing Gen. Gerasimov to claim credit for any advances – and perhaps pose with his own troops near the front line.
“The Kremlin’s intentions are obvious. A strategic offensive operation is being prepared,” Valentyn Badrak, director of the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, wrote on the group’s website. Mr. Badrak predicted that much of the fighting would be left to Wagner mercenaries until the spring, when the Russian army – bolstered by fresh conscripts – would mount a “last” major offensive.
Some observers have suggested that Gen. Gerasimov has been handed a poisoned chalice. The Russian military – after almost 11 months of fighting – doesn’t appear to have the capacity to achieve Mr. Putin’s aim of asserting control over the four Ukrainian provinces he claimed to annex last year, let alone achieve the original goal of capturing Kyiv.
But Mr. Putin is doubling down on his invasion. Mr. Markov said Russian society was coming to understand that the war in Ukraine would be a long one.
And despite Western hopes that Mr. Putin’s grip on power would be shaken by now through economic sanctions and military setbacks, one thing Mr. Shoigu, Gen. Gerasimov, Mr. Prigozhin and Mr. Kadyrov have in common is their overt loyalty to Mr. Putin. That and his lingering power over all of them.