- Russia’s military command has come under heavy criticism for the stalled offensive in Ukraine.
Two voices have been especially vocal: Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the mercenary group Wagner. That’s why they’re important.
An Unlikely Alliance
The two men do not formally run any of Russia’s military or security agencies, and yet they have somehow been allowed to criticize army commanders in unison and praise each other’s views as well.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has ruined its military’s image of an efficient and well-managed corps, from its failure to deliver on state television’s promise that Kyiv will be captured in three days to its withdrawal from large swaths of Ukrainian territory. A newly appointed head of Russian forces in Ukraine, General Sergey Surovikin, can so far only claim success in blowing up Ukrainian power plants.
But the mere fact that these two men have not been silenced for what would otherwise be seen as an unprecedented display of disloyalty suggests that Vladimir Putin is taking their views into account.
The fate of Colonel General Alexander Lapin is a case in point. One of the top Russian commanders in Ukraine was fired in late October, according to widespread reports.
“He needs to be made to wash away his shame with blood,” he ranted.
Yevgeny Prigozhin joined the criticism. He has traveled through Russia’s prison system, recruiting convicts to fight in Ukraine. That kind of influence would not be possible without permission at the highest level. He has even gone so far as to praise Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky as a “solid, confident, pragmatic, and nice guy.”
Who are Prigozhin and Kadyrov?
Yevgeny Prigozhin rose to fame with the nickname “Putin’s chef” because he supplied food and drink for official events in the Kremlin.
A businessman from Russia’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg, is rumored to have met Vladimir Putin in the 1990s when the future president worked in the mayor’s office and frequented his restaurant, popular with local officials.
In the 2010s, several journalistic investigations had linked him to a so-called “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, a disinformation unit whose reported role was to generate content to discredit Russian political opposition online and show the Kremlin in a positive light.
In 2016, according to an investigation later conducted by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller, the troll factory was part of Russia’s attempt to interfere in the U.S. presidential election. Prigozhin denied links to the troll factory, but on Monday revealed: “We have interfered [in the US election], we are interfering and we will continue to interfere. Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our way, as we know how to do it.”
For many years he also denied ties to a mercenary recruitment company called the Wagner Group. Wagner first emerged in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and its fighters later emerged in Syria and many African countries.
He has also been locked for years in a public dispute with the governor of St. Petersburg, Alexander Beglov, going so far as to accuse him of “aiding the Ukrainian army.”
Few Putin allies are as fiercely loyal as Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, whom the Russian leader chose to rule the autonomous republic in the North Caucasus region in 2007.
In the 1990s, Chechnya fought unsuccessfully for independence. Under Mr. Kadyrov’s rule, all attempts at Chechen independence ceased, while human rights deteriorated and his private militia “Kadyrovtsy” was accused of widespread abuses.
He was a vocal supporter of the Russian invasion of Ukraine from the beginning, sending Kadyrovtsy military units and claiming that they were among the best-trained, brave, and most ruthless troops of the Russian occupation force.
They may be ruthless, but their men have also been branded “TikTok troops” by some commentators, more interested in posting videos of their exploits on social media than fighting.
Human rights activists say a substantial proportion of Chechen soldiers were recruited against their will after their families were threatened with extortion or physical violence.
In an indication that his loyalty is cherished by the Kremlin, the Chechen leader has been promoted from brigadier general to colonel general.
Why Two Men Matter
Kadyrov and Prigozhin, who had never before been considered allies, have recently sounded increasingly in tune.
The Chechen leader has called the St. Petersburg businessman “a warrior by birth” and his Wagner mercenaries “intrepid patriots of Russia.” He has returned the compliment: “Ramzan, you’re on fire!” he said in one of his social media posts.
Both men criticize the military establishment, represented by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his deputy and chief of staff, General Valery Gerasimov. Amid an atmosphere of naming and shaming those responsible for failures in Ukraine, this could be their chance to gain more influence at the top.
Commentators believe that, separately, neither the Chechen leader nor Wagner’s boss carries enough weight. They are very unpopular with official political elites and are seen as outsiders. But if they joined forces, they could challenge figures in President Putin’s inner circle, as cracks emerge.
Russian political analyst Abbas Galiamov says the way Kadyrov and Prigozhin behave is highly unusual for a country at war: “It seems that the vertical system of federal authority that President Putin instituted is not working in a place where it is most needed: in the military.”
He describes an atmosphere of “anarchy,” in which commanders of different military units argue with each other rather than fighting as a team.
Experts at the American Institute for the Study of War believe there are two major factions in President Putin’s close entourage. Those who are in favor of stopping the war to save assets frozen by Western sanctions, and those who are in favor of continuing it.
These two men want the war to continue. That may be the message Russia’s leader is most interested in hearing and may choose to keep them closer.
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