Cracks in the Russian command center seen during the fighting in Ukraine

As Russian forces wage a fierce house-to-house battle for control of strongholds in eastern Ukraine, parallel battles are raging in the upper echelons of Moscow’s military might, as President Vladimir Putin reorganizes his top generals. And the rival faction is trying to win his victory. Good feeling.

The battle for the salt-mining town of Soldar, town near bahmut It highlighted a bitter rift between the Russian Defense Ministry leader and Yevgeny Prigozhin, a rogue billionaire whose civilian military known as the Wagner Group is playing an increasingly visible role in Ukraine.

Putin’s shakeup of senior military officials this week was seen as an attempt to show that the defense ministry still has Putin’s backing and is up to the task. troubled conflict Approaching the 11 month mark.

Prigozhin hastened Wednesday to declare that his mercenary force had captured Soledar, claiming that only Wagner had won the prize.The Department of Defense disputes its characterization describing the actions of paratroopers and other units in combat, saying Friday Claim credit for capturing the townA spokesman for the Ukrainian military denied that and said fighting continued in Soledar.

of 61 year old PrigogineKnown as “Putin’s Chef” for his lucrative catering contracts, he was indicted in the United States for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. He has been a harsh critic of military officers.

He found a powerful ally in Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov deployed elite troops from regions of southern Russia to fight in Ukraine, accusing the military leadership and the Kremlin of being too weak and indecisive.

Both have sworn allegiance to Putin, but the public attacks on Putin’s commander-in-chief openly challenge the Kremlin’s monopoly on such criticism.

In personnel changes announced Wednesday, the Ministry of Defense said that General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, was named as the new commander of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine, while former Supreme Commander General Sergey Slovikin was demoted to Gerasimov’s deputy. said. Only 3 months into the company.

The Washington-based War Research Institute described the remodel as an attempt by the Kremlin to “reassert the primacy of the Russian Ministry of Defense in the internal power struggle in Russia”, weaken enemy influence, and signal the United States. considered. Prigogine and others have reduced their criticism.

Prigozhin and Kadyrov repeatedly criticized Gerasimov, the main architect of the Russian campaign in Ukraine, and praised Slovikin, while blaming him for the military defeat.

Russian troops were forced to withdraw from Kyiv after unsuccessful attempts to capture the Ukrainian capital in the first weeks of the war. In the fall, they bore the brunt of a swift Ukrainian counterattack, withdrawing hastily from the cities northeast of Kharkov and south of Kherson.

Slovikin led the withdrawal from Kherson, the only regional center occupied by Russia, and was credited with strengthening command and increasing rank discipline. However, a Ukrainian missile strike on the eastern Ukrainian town of Makyovka on January 1 killed a large number of Russian troops and tarnished his image.

Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said Gerasimov’s appointment was not over yet Another attempt by Putin to solve his military problems by shaking the brass.

“He’s trying to rearrange things, so he’s giving chances to people he thinks are convincing. But really, the problem isn’t the people, it’s the job at hand.”

Stanovaya argued that Gerasimov could have demanded “discretionary powers in the heat of verbal battles against the backdrop of some very tense debates.” For Putin, “this is an operation, a tug-of-war between Slovikin (and sympathizers like 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 sat at a very long table next to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu when the conflict began in February. I was sitting Putin. His appointment to directly command the military in Ukraine elicited bitter comments from some Russian hawks.

Viktor Alksnis, a former Soviet Air Force colonel who spearheaded a failed attempt to keep the Soviet Union in 1991, noted that Gerasimov oversaw operations in Ukraine even before his appointment.

“This decision reflects the understanding of our political and military leaders that a special military operation has failed and that its goals have not been achieved in nearly a year of fighting,” Alksnis said in his I wrote on the Message App channel.

Mark Galeotti, a specialist in Russian military and security affairs at University College London, said the appointment would make Gerasimov “the most poisoned chalice” because he would be directly responsible for further setbacks. ” was handed over to Mr. Gerasimov.

“Gerasimov is on the verge,” Galeotti said in a Twitter comment. “He needs some kind of victory or his career will end in disgrace. This could suggest some kind of escalation.”

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

“If you keep appointing (relative) stars, spinning them, burning them, setting unrealistic expectations, and demoting them arbitrarily, it won’t win loyalty,” he said. Told.

Meanwhile, Prigozhin has used military setbacks in Ukraine to expand his influence by making the Wagner Group a key component of Russia’s combat power, augmenting a regular army that is suffering from severe attrition.

Ukrainian officials claimed that Wagner’s contractors had suffered heavy losses in the fighting at Soledar and Bakhmut and advanced “in the bodies of their own comrades.”

After being convicted of assault and robbery and serving time in prison, Prigozhin has spent recent months visiting Russia’s vast network of penal colonies to recruit inmates to join Wagner’s army and fight in Ukraine in exchange for amnesty. Did.

He recently released a video showing about 20 inmates being allowed to leave the ranks of combatants after six months of fighting on the front lines.

A video posted in the fall showed a Wagner contractor allegedly defecting to Ukraine, being beaten to death with a hammer. Despite public outrage and calls to investigate the incident, authorities have turned a blind eye to it.

Observers warn that by giving Prigogine the freedom to run Wagner as a private army governed by medieval-style rules, the government effectively planted the dangerous seeds of potential chaos.

Carnegie Endowment analyst Andrei Kolesnikov predicts, “Ultimately, there will be escalation of chaos and violence, extrajudicial and illegal.”


Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine.