Russian Unease Over Ukraine War Grows Amid Attacks and Leadership Rifts

With Ukraine stepping up attacks deep inside Russian-controlled territory, there were new signs on Friday of disarray and unease among Russia’s military and political leadership as they brace for a looming Ukrainian offensive, for which their forces may be ill-prepared.

The latest manifestation of those tensions came from Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group, who used what he said were the newly bloody corpses of his fighters as the backdrop for another expletive-laced rant against the top military command. Not for the first time, he threatened to pull his fighters out of the long-embattled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut if the Ministry of Defense did not provide more ammunition.

That was just one of a series of events that contributed to a sense that the war effort, and by extension the country, was adrift, even as Russia prepares to observe the biggest military holiday of the year next Tuesday.

Two explosions rocked the Kremlin in the middle of the night on Wednesday, in what the Russians claimed was a failed drone attack by Ukraine. Denying the accusation, Ukraine said Russia might have done it to try to muster domestic support for a faltering war effort. No matter the culprit, symbolically it seemed to many to signal Kremlin weakness.

That came in tandem with attacks on a number of oil storage facilities, igniting huge fires, and train derailments both near the border and well away from the battlefields, all attributed to Ukrainian drones or sabotage.

Adding to the building sense of anxiety, the head of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, bizarrely accused the United States in an interview of having started the war to seize territory ahead of a supposed cataclysmic explosion of a volcano at Yellowstone National Park, which he said would wipe out life in North America.

“Everyone is nervous, sitting on the edge of their seats,” said Clifford Kupchan, a Russia specialist and chairman of the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based political risk assessment firm. “You have the most revered Russian military holiday dovetailing with the coming Ukrainian offensive and all of these explosive events.”

The holiday, Victory Day, commemorates the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany, and in the last two decades President Vladimir V. Putin has transformed the military spectacle into a centerpiece of his rule.

That ratchets up the stakes for Moscow, Mr. Kupchan said. “It is yet another cause of the high tension that we are seeing right now and the jitters on both sides,” he added.

Mr. Putin has remained silent, as he sometimes has in the past amid rapid-fire events. But he is under some pressure himself to rally the nation in his scheduled nationwide Victory Day speech.

“The longer Putin is silent, the more everyone will think that he is confused and does not know what to do,” Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst, wrote on Telegram.

In one sign of heightened security fears, Red Square, at the very heart of Moscow, and the venue for the viewing stands for the elite during the parade, has been closed to the public since the end of April. Numerous parades around the country are being scaled back or canceled.

The one in Moscow, however, is expected to be the usual, carefully choreographed display of raw power, even if the reputation of the Russian military has been diminished. Some pro-war bloggers have lashed out at the business-as-usual parade, saying the men and weapons would be better deployed in Ukraine.

Part of that is because so much is riding on the outcome of the anticipated Ukrainian drive.

“Many people see this offensive as decisive in the war,” said Dmitri Kuznets, who monitors the military bloggers for Meduza, an independent Russian website in Riga, Latvia. “Everyone is very emotional and people’s interpretation depends on their political views.”

In a sign of the growing anxiety, the Russian occupation authorities on Friday ordered civilians living near the front line in the Zaporizhzhia region, in southern Ukraine, to leave their homes and businesses.

“I would like to stress that this is a mandatory measure to ensure the safety of residents living in frontline territories,” the Kremlin-appointed governor of the region, Yevgeny Balitsky, said in a statement. He also declared that he thought the offensive had already begun.

Although many do not expect Ukraine to launch its attack until the spring mud hardens in mid-May, various pinpricks inside Russia were seen by military analysts as designed to keep Russia from moving more forces toward the front lines.

Russia accused Ukraine of using two drones to target the Kremlin this week, saying it shot them down within the fortress walls. In addition to the attacks on oil depots in Crimea, on Friday, drones hit a refinery in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia, Russian state media reported.

Mr. Prigozhin has unleashed similar rants previously, but Mr. Putin has been loath to publicly rebuke either him or the top military leaders whom the mercenary leader denigrated — Sergei K. Shoigu, the minister of defense, and Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the armed forces.

Over the course of the war, Mr. Prigozhin and the generals have maneuvered bureaucratically and on the battlefield to gain the upper hand in directing the war and to win Mr. Putin’s confidence. The president, in turn, has played the two sides off against each other to ensure, analysts say, that neither amasses too much power.

There is evident pressure, spoken or unspoken, on Mr. Prigozhin and other commanders to produce some results to brag about for Victory Day. In one of his statements on Friday, Mr. Prigozhin said that he had been expected to take Bakhmut by then, but had been foiled by “military bureaucrats” who cut off the supply of artillery shells days ago.

Mr. Prigozhin announced that his withdrawal would happen next Wednesday, the day after the holiday. His gory video and statements caused an uproar, with some critics accusing Mr. Prigozhin of “blackmail,” while others praised his courage. One pro-military blogger compared him to the hero of the movie “The Last Samurai,” a warrior willing to sacrifice his own life “in order for the emperor to open his eyes.”

Ramzan Kadyrov, the pugnacious leader of the Republic of Chechnya inside Russia, chastised Mr. Prigozhin for displaying the corpses of his men to create a public outcry, and offered to deploy his men in place of the Wagner mercenaries to finish the job in Bakhmut. He also chastised the Defense Ministry for logistical and supply issues.

Mr. Prigozhin’s threat to leave was not fully credited, seen as just another in a series of rash statements or a new attempt to capture Mr. Putin’s attention.

There was no immediate official reaction, but a previous outburst by Mr. Prigozhin did win him some of the ammunition and recruits that he wanted, although the numbers remain murky.

Several Russia analysts said they expected the Defense Ministry to meet some of Mr. Prigozhin’s demands this time, too, since there is no ready alternative to his estimated 10,000 men in Bakhmut.

Both Ukrainian and American intelligence officials said they had seen no movements by the Wagner forces that suggested repositioning, and regarded Mr. Prigozhin’s comments more as a sign of the chronic palace intrigue and bureaucratic maneuvering among the Russian leadership.

“I would strongly doubt that the Russians are going to withdraw from Bakhmut, so that is histrionics,” Mr. Kupchan said.

Milana Mazaeva, Ivan Nechepurenko, Marc Santora, Julian Barnes and Matthew Mpoke Bigg contributed reporting.

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