In the two videos released in early May, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the patron of Wagner PMC, overstepped every conceivable line. Filmed against a backdrop of dead mercenaries, he directed a stream of obscenities at the current military command. He announced that, in a few days, he would withdraw his troops from combat positions. In essence, he was stating that he did not consider himself obliged to obey the unified command structure of the Russian grouping in Ukraine, which Putin has entrusted to Valery Gerasimov, the head of the General Staff.
The previous flare-up of Prigozhin's conflict with Russia’s military leadership came at the end of December 2022. At that time, however, the profanity-laced insults to the command were hurled by the rank-and-file soldiers of the PMC, while Prigozhin merely expressed his solidarity with the content of their messages. At that time no threats were made to voluntarily withdraw from combat positions. In the aftermath of this episode, it was reported that Putin had to personally intervene in order to settle the differences between the PMC and the General Staff.In both cases, Yevgeny Prigozhin needed a public dispute to explain the fact that Wagner PMC, which is seen to be more effective than the inefficient regular units of the Ministry of Defence by the Russian public, was unable to take Bakhmut. Russian forces have been attempting to take this city since the first half of August 2022. But this conflict seems to be just the tip of the iceberg, a reflection of the atmosphere of instability, conflict and even chaos within the management and leadership of the entire ‘operation’ during the 14 and a half months since the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Based on the assumption that the Ukrainian armed forces would not put up strong resistance, the blitzkrieg plan for the invasion of Ukraine did not require the development of a real military campaign strategy, the mechanics of its implementation, or the appointment of those responsible for sustained military action. This miscalculation was based on the assumption that the army would march victoriously into Ukraine, not fight. Therefore, there was no need to organise a unified military leadership, as Vladimir Putin would be the political beneficiary of the victorious march.
But, even after the failure of the blitzkrieg, no single commander was appointed. Experts at the US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) suggest that Putin's reluctance to appoint a commander stemmed from political concerns, likening the situation to the jealousy and suspicion between Joseph Stalin and Marshal Georgy Zhukov. However, leaked secret data suggests that the reasons may run deeper: according to sources, Gerasimov, head of the General Staff, was probably opposed to the full-scale invasion aimed at occupying eastern Ukraine and Kyiv. In this context, Putin apparently felt that Gerasimov was not a credible ally to manage the 'operation' after the failure of the initial plan.According to ISW analysts in a recently published review of the ‘operation's’ command staff rotations, the first attempt to actually establish the leadership of an army that was already at war was the (publicly unannounced) appointment of Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov as the Commander of the grouping in Ukraine in April 2022. However, this appointment failed to change the course of the unprepared military campaign or meet the unrealistic expectations of Putin, who expected to take control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by Victory Day on May 9th 2022. As a result, according to the ISW, General Gennady Zhidko replaced Dvornikov as head of the grouping at the end of May last year.
The next stage in the reformation of the grouping's management took place in June 2022, when Zhidko established operational groupings — Southern, Western, Central and Eastern — each with its own commander. However, the division of responsibilities was never made public, which caused confusion among the populace and the troops. In July and August, against the backdrop of a stalled Russian offensive, the leaders of almost all the groups were replaced.
Then, in early summer, amid Putin's dissatisfaction with the military, the star of Yevgeny Prigozhin rose. He was given carte blanche to recruit prisoners to boost the size of Wagner PMC. According to Olga Romanova, head of the Russia Behind Bars Foundation, the first recruitment of prisoners took place in late June. She also estimates that 11,000 people had been recruited by the private military company by September. According to ISW analysts, the embarrassing defeats in Kharkiv and Kherson prompted the Kremlin to strengthen its ties with radical figures who have access to their own paramilitary structures, such as Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin. One of the most important public functions of Prigozhin has been to hold Shoigu and Gerasimov publicly accountable for the failures of the defence ministry.
In October, Prigozhin and Kadyrov warmly welcomed the appointment of General Surovikin as the new Commander of the General Operations Directorate, the third person to hold this post in just five months. It strengthened the position of Wagner PMC, which took over responsibility for the offensive to seize Bakhmut and began to receive significant supplies of weapons and ammunition from the Russian armed forces, ISW analysts point out. According to British intelligence, Wagner's forces numbered up to 50,000 at its peak, which is about a quarter of the size of the Russian grouping which had been concentrated near the border with Ukraine on the eve of the invasion in February 2022. At the same time, according to White House estimates, Wagner had lost up to 30,000 men by February 2023, using prisoners as cannon fodder.
In any case, they had failed to take Bakhmut by the autumn, which led to a new reversal of Kremlin sentiment. Between November 2022 and January 2023, two of the four group commanders, as well as the Deputy Defence Minister for logistics and the Commander of the Airborne Forces, were replaced once again. Meanwhile, despite fierce criticism from Wagnerites and patriotic Z-bloggers, Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, was appointed as the new Commander of the Unified Grouping. This occurred at the same time as Prigozhin lost access to the recruitment of prisoners, which meant that he was no longer able to replenish the ranks of his army.
But the winter-spring offensive that many had expected Russian troops to carry out did not take place, or at least had little effect. Against this background, there was another series of rotations to the leadership of the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence. Moreover, ISW analysts believe that this new failure prompted Putin to divide responsibility for the 'operation' in Ukraine among competing military factions. In particular, according to media reports, during his trip to the occupied territories in April, Putin met with General Teplinsky, the newly appointed Commander of the Airborne Troops, and with General Lapin, who had previously been dismissed as head of the Central Military District. As Dmitry Peskov explained, Teplinsky (in addition to holding the post of Airborne Commander) and Lapin are now also Gerasimov's Deputy Commanders for the entire Ukrainian grouping. In January, Generals Surovikin, Oleg Salyukov and Alexei Kim were announced as Gerasimov's Deputy Commanders. Three months later, two of the three were replaced. Notably, neither Shoigu nor Gerasimov accompanied Putin on his trips and meetings with the military, a move which was seen by observers as a sign of a renewed decline in their credibility. Putin held a meeting with the military at the National Guard headquarters in Vostok.
The Russian army's failures in Ukraine have partly been the result of a disorganised personnel policy, with the Russian army's command structures becoming increasingly fragmented. At the same time, as ISW analysts astutely point out, Putin's personnel decisions regarding the army follow the same logic as his domestic politics: the president tends to rotate officials rather than dismiss them outright in order to maintain his ability to rely on competing factions, to pit them against each other and to act as an arbiter of clashes between these groups.
The constant changes in personnel and the shifting support from one faction to another in the military leadership and its political lobbyists thus demonstrate that political goals remain Putin's priority, even if they lead to a deterioration in the quality of the management of the ‘operation’ and a possible loss of control over the army.
At this stage, it is difficult to say how far the disintegration of the military command structures might progress. However, the renewed flare-up of the conflict between Prigozhin and the army leadership illustrates the extent of this development. On the one hand, Prigozhin has quite literally publicly declared his disobedience to the Group Commander appointed by Putin. On the other hand, Mikhail Mizintsev, who was appointed Deputy Defence Minister for logistics in November 2022 and then dismissed from this post in April 2023, participated in Prigozhin's démarche as an adviser to the Wagner leadership, while Lapin, who resigned from the leadership of the Central Group, is now Deputy Commander of the Unified Group. Finally, General Surovikin, who was demoted from Commander of the Unified Group to Deputy Commander, will now, according to Prigozhin, personally supervise the Wagner PMC and represent its interests in the Unified Command. Thus, competing and conflicting military structures ‘scatter’ the army's top generals into different ‘homes’.
Managed conflict is an integral feature of any authoritarian government and typically serves only to strengthen the leader's position as arbiter. But unmanageable conflict, which ultimately undermines the leader's authority, may result from managed conflict spiralling out of control. In an unsuccessful war, the risks of such developments increase as the need to shift responsibility for failure becomes stronger than the desire to turn the tide on the battlefield. In this situation, one side may seek to portray defeat as the result of ‘betrayal’, a ‘knife in the back’ of the true patriots. The very form of Prigozhin's démarche is designed to inflict maximum and, indeed, irreparable damage on the reputations of Shoigu and Gerasimov and to mobilise the support of a pro-war segment of Russian society. However, such mobilisation of public opinion leads to ultra-patriots and Z-bloggers believing in this ‘betrayal’, and judging by their reactions, they have growing doubts, not only in the army but also in those at the very top of the political leadership.