Russian Infighting Could Be Just What Ukraine Needs
At a time when criticism inside Russia of that country’s “special military operation” against Ukraine—a euphemism for its unprovoked invasion of its neighbor—can often lead to arrest and prosecution, even long prison sentences, two people stand out for their harsh assessments of the military’s performance: Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the head of the Wagner mercenary outfit, Yevgeniy Prigozhin.
Kadyrov and Prigozhin’s criticism of the Russian military likely has more to do with palace intrigue in Moscow than with the situation in Ukraine. Kadyrov and Prigozhin are close enough to Putin that they haven’t faced any consequences criticizing—even insulting—the Russian Ministry of Defense and its leaders. One of the ways that Russian President Vladimir Putin preserves his power is by keeping various factions at odds with each other and refereeing the political infighting. Constant bureaucratic (and sometimes actual) combat among the Kremlin’s many towers may help Putin keep his hold on power, but it could cost him in Ukraine. Russian infighting could be exactly the opportunity Ukraine needs.
Kadyrov and Prigozhin are both rivals for power in influence in Putin’s circle. Neither has the institutional heft of the Russian military, but they were hand-selected by Putin for positions of power and have earned his personal trust.
Russian military leaders have been suspicious of Kadyrov for years, ever since he replaced his father, Akhmad, who was assassinated in 2004. Putin handpicked Ramzan to replace Akhmad as leader of the rebellious republic in Russia’s North Caucasus region, which Russian forces invaded in 1994 and again in 1999. Through brutal tactics and intimidation, the younger Kadyrov has kept the lid on Chechnya, building up a security force loyal to him but not to Russia’s military. His deal with Putin appears to be that Kadyrov gets to run Chechnya as his personal dictatorship-within-a-dictatorship as long as Chechnya doesn’t cause any problems for Moscow.
In a slap at the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine, Putin this month promoted Kadyrov to the rank Colonel-General in the Russian Army, hinting that the Chechen leader might take on a more prominent role in Ukraine. Kadyrov has actively pushed men in his region to join Russian forces in Ukraine and claims to have sent his sons to the battlefront, too. His forces, however, while known for their brutality and human rights abuses, are ill-equipped for confrontations with highly motivated Ukrainian forces. Some Chechens critical of both Kadyrov and Putin have joined the Ukrainian side against the Russian forces.
Prigozhin, frequently described as “Putin’s chef” for his catering business with the Kremlin, has been tied to Putin for many years. His PMC Wagner paramilitary company, with suspected ties to Russia’s military intelligence arm, has a reputation for corruption and brutality in places where it has been deployed, including in Syria, the Central African Republic, Libya, and Mali. Prigozhin has been sanctioned and indicted by the United States for his support for the invasion of Ukraine going back to 2014 and for his efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election through another organization he oversees, the Internet Research Agency troll farm.
PMC Wagner is just one of several military organizations outside the Ministry of Defense that Putin has elevated, and the formal military hasn’t responded with enthusiasm. In 2018, a group of Wagner forces threatened American troops on the ground in Syria. After ignoring U.S. warnings to back off, American military aircraft bombed and killed several hundred of them. In an indication that the Ministry of Defense and Prigozhin do not see eye-to-eye, Russian military forces on the ground in Syria did nothing to support their Wagner counterparts.
Both Kadyrov and Prigozhin have derided the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine. According to the Washington Post, Prigozhin recently voiced his criticism directly with Putin. They may be channeling Putin’s own frustration, a sentiment undoubtedly shared in many circles, possibly even among the upper echelons of the military. Most importantly, Prigozhin and Kadyrov have been very careful to avoid any criticism of Putin himself. Crossing that line could land them in trouble with the boss.
Instead, Prigozhin and Kadyrov have focused their attacks on Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, even implying they could do a better job than the professionals. Prigozhin and Kadyrov have blasted General Alexander Lapin, who commanded Russian troops in the Lyman region of Donetsk Oblast, by name, blaming him for much of Russia’s abysmal performance.“If it were up to me,” Kadyrov posted on Telegram, “I’d downgrade Lapin to private, strip him of his medals and send him to the front lines with gun to wash off his disgrace with his blood.” Prigozhin chimed in, saying, “Way to go, Ramzan, you’re the man. All these jerks should be sent to the front lines with submachine guns, barefoot.”
Prigozhin and Kadyrov have even offered their own forces, who, they claim, can do a better job. Wagner forces, for example, took up positions in Bakhmut, Ukraine, apparently without coordination with the Ministry of Defense. Still, their criticism plays well with the Russian nationalist crowd, which argues that Russia has been too restrained in its approach to fighting the war. Letting them fire away rhetorically may be part of Putin’s efforts to placate the über-hawks among his critics.
In reality, Kadyrov’s men are ill-equipped for the situation in Ukraine and Prigozhin’s Wagner group suffers from the same problem afflicting the Russian military: a lack of bodies and a dearth of equipment and provisions. To beef up his roster, Prigozhin has had to go into Russian prisons to recruit members, offering convicts amnesty if they agree to serve with his outfit.
Still, for all the incompetence of Russia’s military leaders in Ukraine, they possess a lot more weapons and have a lot more troops than do Prigozhin’s Wagner forces and Kadyrov’s fighters. The Russian Army would likely not rush to the aid of Wagner forces who come under attack from Ukrainian fighters, much as they abandoned them at the hands of U.S. forces in Syria in 2018. And they certainly wouldn’t lift a finger for Chechen combatants under duress.
Russian military bloggers, many of whom have themselves criticized the Ministry of Defense, have backed Lapin, recognizing an unhealthy rivalry between Prigozhin and Kadyrov on one side and Russia’s military leaders on the other. These bloggers have rallied around Sergei Surovikin, the new general put in charge of Russian forces in Ukraine; Prigozhin and Kadyrov have also praised Surovikin, a man known for brutality.
Surovikin has been preparing for the possible loss of Kherson, as Ukrainian forces zero in on recapturing that key city. If that happens, it is easy to imagine Prigozhin and Kadyrov quickly turning on Surovikin. Putin—not one to take responsibility for his mistakes—may make Surovkin the fall guy for yet another military setback.
In a more functional system, Kadyrov and Prigozhin might serve a useful purpose, offering much needed criticism to the ultimate decision-maker and encouraging him to fire incompetent subordinates. The problem is that, because of Putin’s balancing act, he can’t let any one faction dominate. The public feud between the Ministry of Defense and Prigozhin and Kadyrov will not fix Russia’s disastrous military performance in Ukraine. Putin also needs to be mindful of how long Russia’s military leaders will tolerate such verbal assaults and uncoordinated maneuvers in Ukraine.
As long as he can contain it, the sparring may preserve Putin’s grip on power. This serves Putin’s personal and political interests by keeping the spotlight for Russia’s disastrous invasion on them, and not on the Russian leader, where it ultimately belongs. The problems arise if Kadyrov’s and Prigozhin’s ambitions grow too large, in which case Putin would need to order the military and/or security services—none of which appear to have personnel or resources to spare—to rein them in. On the other hand, the military has demonstrated that it is incapable of achieving Putin’s objectives in Ukraine—so who can? The more he relies on Kadyrov and Prigozhin, the more opportunities the Ukrainians will have to take advantage of the disorganization inherent in private military groups. That might create openings for further Ukrainian advances which, in turn, could feed further Russian infighting. All this could produce a sudden Russian military collapse.
There are no good guys to cheer for in this unfolding feud. Both the Russian military and the Wagner forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity as part of Putin’s genocidal campaign in Ukraine; Kadyrov’s forces make a habit of violating Chechens’ human rights. In a competition to boost their standing with Putin, the Russian military and the Wagner and Kadyrov forces might even ramp up their attacks in Ukraine, which would inflict more suffering on innocent Ukrainians.
For the United States and our allies, the best thing to do is continue to support Ukraine to win this war, not simply defend itself. It is in U.S. interests to help Ukraine defeat all Russian forces there, whether they’re the official Russian military or one of its unofficial competitors. Helping Ukraine soundly defeat Russia’s military will reduce the likelihood of another invasion on Putin’s watch. Putting Prigozhin, Kadyrov, and their murderous thugs out of commission in the process would benefit not only Ukraine but other countries that have been their victims.