Putin Faces Military Setbacks and Disunity

Drones have exploded over the Kremlin. Russian military aircraft are crashing before they even reach Ukrainian airspace. A Russian mercenary boss is releasing one profanity-laced tirade after another, claiming that corrupt Russian generals who “all reek of expensive perfume” are sending soldiers to their deaths.

And Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive hasn’t even started in earnest.

These would seem to be bad weeks for President Vladimir V. Putin, a time when the problems that have plagued his 15-month war since its beginning are only worsening: stretched resources, disorganized defenses and disunity in the ranks.

Those problems are now threatening to derail what just weeks ago had seemed finally to be a rare military success in Russia’s grasp: victory in the long-running, bloody battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

Russian forces, while still fighting fiercely within the city limits, have retreated from positions on the edges of Bakhmut and according to the Russian Defense Ministry lost two colonels to combat there. Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the chief of the Wagner mercenary group who has made capturing Bakhmut his main objective, has been spouting social media invective at the Russian military, accusing its leadership of failing to adequately supply his fighters and its soldiers of abandoning their positions on Wagner’s flanks.

The spectacularly public feud between Mr. Prigozhin and the Defense Ministry — and Mr. Putin’s apparent inability or disinclination to stop it — has rekindled doubts about Moscow’s ability to succeed on the battlefield itself, where coordination between disparate units is of critical importance. Already, the Russian military has been forced into multiple retreats, and since last year has been mostly stalled along the 600-mile front line.

“One of the ways Putin maintains power is he likes having multiple factions, and he likes having factions compete with one another,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “That might make sense in politics, but it’s very, very harmful in a military operation.”

The challenge for Mr. Putin goes beyond the battlefield as he struggles to project an air of competence and confidence to his own public and to Russia’s elites. One prominent Russian businessman in Moscow, speaking on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, said Mr. Prigozhin was making the government look “absolutely ham-fisted and brainless and idiotic — and it increasingly appears that that’s how it really is.”

But the businessman, echoing analysts in the West, said he did not see Mr. Prigozhin’s antics, or dramatic incidents like the mysterious explosions over the Kremlin on May 3, derailing Mr. Putin’s war effort. Instead, he said, he and his peers are preparing for a war that could well last years, even if they do not agree with it.

The dysfunction, infighting and tension, analysts said, could be misread as a signal that Mr. Putin will face political constraints in prosecuting the war, when he may be more likely to be limited by economic challenges, military-industrial capacity and battlefield mismanagement.

“There is so much fixation on looking for fractures and potential sources of instability in Russia, and that tends to overwhelm our ability to see the sources of resilience and continuity,” said Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mr. Weiss noted that in Russia’s top-down, authoritarian system, the leadership’s policies don’t need to pass muster with the population as they would in a democracy. “They have plenty of running room to continue the criminal war,” he said.

Prizing loyalty above all else, Mr. Putin appears prepared to stomach sniping among his war leaders as long as it doesn’t threaten him personally. Among Russia’s elite, business leaders appear to have grown accustomed to the idea of a yearslong war and have adapted supply chains — and their own consumption and travel patterns — to Western sanctions.

And in the broader public, a pervading sense of being under siege from a powerful external enemy — a message repeated daily on state television — has given Mr. Putin broad license to continue fighting, even amid setbacks.

The Russian president remains convinced that he can outlast both Ukraine and the West, say Western officials and analysts, as well as Russians who know him. But there is no sign that Mr. Putin will win his bet anytime soon.

The recent Russian setbacks occurred as Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, traveled to Berlin, Paris and London, receiving renewed commitments of military aid from his European allies. His success suggests that Western support for Ukraine may have more staying power than Mr. Putin believes.

Increased support from Western backers is starting to help Ukraine on the battlefield, another challenge for Moscow. Patriot missile batteries supplied by the United States are offering better protection against Russian attacks in the Ukrainian capital, and long-range cruise missiles from Britain are enabling Ukrainian forces to strike farther behind Russian lines.

Russian media also reported that four Russian aircraft crashed or were downed on Sunday over the western Bryansk region, which borders Ukraine, in a significant blow to Russian aviation forces.

No development has drawn more attention in recent days than the inflammatory rhetoric of Mr. Prigozhin, who crossed new lines by appearing to take aim at Mr. Putin before backing off; at one point he suggested that the Russian people could take matters into their own hands if the country’s military leadership doesn’t change.

Part of the problem for Mr. Putin stems from disparate battlefield goals.

Mr. Lee, the military analyst, noted that Mr. Prigozhin’s objective, which is to take Bakhmut above all else, differs from the priorities of the Russian Defense Ministry, which must ration its resources and take into consideration other places along the front that may come under pressure from a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

“Over this entire war,” Mr. Lee said, “there has been a unity of command problem, and it’s one Putin apparently thinks is OK, but which has created a number of issues.” It is not clear that regular Russian military units would even come to Wagner’s aid, or vice versa, when facing a Ukrainian onslaught, he said.

Mr. Prigozhin has been trying to wrest control of the city since October, turning Bakhmut into a holy grail for both sides. He has trumpeted his private fighting outfit — consisting of mercenaries, veterans and convicts recruited from Russian prisons — as superior to a moribund Russian military hobbled by incompetent leadership.

Mr. Prigozhin sought to take the Ukrainian city by May 9, the holiday marking Soviet victory over Nazi Germany during World War II. But as his forces struggled to meet the deadline, he began taking aim at the Russian military leadership in brash videos, accusing them of failing to provide his men with sufficient ammunition.

The shock value of his recordings has attracted attention, such as when he raged against Russia’s generals in front of a pile of his fighters’ bloodied corpses. So have his comments assailing the Russian military at a time when people across Russia are facing prosecution, fines and imprisonment for speaking negatively about the war or “discrediting” the Russian armed forces.

In one recent video, he said the problem posed by a Russian military led by people who demand nothing but blind fealty would need to be dealt with — “or one day the Russian people will solve it themselves.”

In another, he seemed to take aim at Mr. Putin. Echoing a nickname for the Russian leader used by his critics, he asked rhetorically what would become of Russia, if the “grandpa” who believed everything was going well on the battlefield turned out to be a “complete jackass.” He later suggested he was referring to a top Russian general, not Mr. Putin.

The Washington Post, citing leaked U.S. intelligence documents, reported on Sunday that the mercenary boss had offered to reveal Russian military positions on the front to Kyiv if Ukraine agreed to withdraw from the area around Bakhmut. Mr. Prigozhin denied the report as a “hoax,” suggesting that powerful people in Russia, jealous of his force’s battlefield achievements, could be spreading false information about him.

So far, the Kremlin has not signaled discontent with the way Mr. Prigozhin is speaking and behaving, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, noting that when someone has upset Mr. Putin, that displeasure usually becomes known. Mr. Prigozhin’s behavior carries significant costs and risks, she said, but the Russian leader has decided that so far it falls within the boundaries of acceptability.

She also discounted the mercenary boss as a political threat, even if Mr. Prigozhin is making a name for himself among swaths of the Russian public. “I don’t see Prigozhin posing any political problem for Putin personally,” Ms. Stanovaya said.

It is a different matter for the bureaucrats, she said.

“They all look at Prigozhin, and they are all in shock,” she said. “For Putin, it’s not a problem.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *