War divisions

The Bell

Ceremonial annexation and new losses

Putin formally signed Friday a document allowing the accession of four occupied Ukrainian territories to the Russian Federation. The ceremony took place in the Kremlin’s St George Hall where, eight years earlier, Putin signed the order formalizing the annexation of Crimea. As usual at such events, watching the faces of Russia’s ruling elite as they waited for the perennially delayed president, was illuminating.

Putin gave a 40-minute address, which, despite being hailed as a far-reaching and important speech in state media, simply rehashed things that had been said in previous speeches. Essentially an endless tirade against “Western hegemony,” the speech includeded a long historical digression about the European slave trade, the Opium Wars, the genocide of native Americans and the use of atomic weapons on Japan in 1945.

The mention of Hiroshima (“the U.S. set a precedent,” Putin observed) was the only hint at the possibility that Russia might resort to using its own nuclear arsenal in Ukraine. On this occasion there was no direct threat, appearing to chime with Washington’s assessment and prevailing expert opinions that Moscow is unlikely to escalate the war in such a deadly way.

Putin repeatedly asserted that the residents of the annexed territories would be Russian citizens forever, and that Moscow would never betray them. Neither Putin himself, nor the Kremlin’s propagandists, appeared to be in any way embarrassed by the blatant falsehood of these statements: at the very moment Putin was delivering his speech, Russian forces were preparing to retreat from the strategically significant town of Lyman.

By Saturday morning, the Russian Defense Ministry had announced the withdrawal of its forces from Lyman. The number of casualties and vehicles abandoned during the retreat is unknown. Lyman was the next logical target for the Ukrainian forces following their recapture of the towns of Balakliya and Izyum in the Kharkiv Region. Russian troops defended the important transport hub of Lyman for two weeks, and its fall to Kiev now leaves the northern Luhansk region vulnerable to further attacks. In July, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu hailed the complete ‘liberation’ of the Luhansk region, an achievement that was the sole Russian military victory of the summer.

By Sunday evening, the frontline had already moved another 30 kilometers east of Lyman, near the town of Kreminna. A further 30 kilometers or so separates Kreminna from Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, two major cities in the Luhansk region, which are controlled by Moscow. They will be the next targets for the Ukrainian military. At the same time, Ukrainian troops continued their rapid advance in the south, gaining 25km on Sunday in the Kherson region.

The Blame Game

Not even Russia’s state-run television channels could overlook Moscow’s second major military defeat, however, and the search for scapegoats led to unprecedented public criticism of the Russian military by the leaders of paramilitary groups fighting in Ukraine.

Following the Defense Ministry’s announcement of Lyman’s fall, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was scathing in his criticism of Colonel General Alexander Lapin, commander of the Central Military District, whose units failed to defend the city. Lapin had been made a Hero of Russia for taking Lysychansk in the summer “although de facto he was neither there, nor nearby,” Kadyrov said. He should now shoulder responsibility for the fall of Lyman, the Chechen ruler added, alleging that Lapin had not provided his troops with sufficient ammunition or equipment and sat out the battle some 150 kilometers from the front.

“The shame is not in Lapin’s mediocrity. It’s in the fact that he is protected at the top by the leaders of the General Staff. If it was up to me, I’d demote Lapin to a private, strip him of his medals and send him off with a machine gun in his hands to wash his shame away in blood,” Kadyrov wrote. He also advised the army to use “low-yield nuclear weapons.”

Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, backed the Chechen leader’s comments: “Kadyrov’s emotional statement, of course, is not my style. But I have to say, ‘Ramzan, you’re spot on.’ All these idiots should be sent barefoot to the front,” Prigozhin said in a statement that was released to the media.

Kadyrov and Prigozhin lead the two biggest and best-known paramilitary groups fighting in Ukraine and both have serious grievances with the Russian military. However, since the start of the war, both have largely lost control of their private armies.

  • The story behind the involvement of the Chechen security forces in the war was brilliantly reported by Novaya Gazeta journalist Yelena Milashina, a leading expert on Chechnya. Given the reluctance of Chechens to fight in Ukraine, Kadyrov initially wanted to replace them with volunteers from other Russian regions who had been trained in Chechnya — and reportedly used around $300 million of his own money to fund this plan. Over the summer, however, the Russian Defense Ministry demanded Kadryov form a battalion of Chechen fighters that would not report to him personally, but be integrated into the Armed Forces.
  • Wagner Group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin faces a similar situation. Back in 2018-19 he burnt his bridges with the Ministry of Defense and wrecked his relationship with Shoigu. At first, the army did not want to use Wagner units in Ukraine at all, though once it had become clear that Moscow’s swift victory had failed to materialize, Wagner units did start to appear on the front. However, the Defense Ministry took complete control over the Wagner Group and its infrastructure.

What it means

Kadyrov’s and Prigozhin’s criticism of Russia’s top brass are unprecedented. However, despite the fearsome reputations of both these characters, their political weight cannot compare with that of those in the security forces. Moreover, the position of both men is dependent on Putin’s favor. Rumors of a rebellion in the pro-war party can be safely ignored — it’s far more likely that Kadyrov and Prigozhin suspect changes in the top ranks of the military are afoot, or are merely guessing that Putin is disappointed in his generals. Such vociferous attacks on the Russian military, however, does serve to highlight how the status of the army’s top brass has nosedived sharply in the wake of Kharkiv and Lyman.

Kadyrov, Prigozhin and pro-war bloggers are not alone in attacking Russia’s military leadership, either. The most outspoken critic of Russia’s commanders this weekend was actually Anastasia Kashevarova, a former assistant to State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, one of the most vocal advocates of the war. On Saturday, she posted an expletive-heavy list of highly personal attacks on Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, which has now been seen by over 1.3 million people. Kashevarova is widely seen as being close to Volodin, as well as to Kadyrov.

There was criticism too from other propagandists unable to enter the fray without the Kremlin’s tacit consent. In a recent TV broadcast, RT boss Margarita Simonyan insisted that she served “the people” and not officials “nor some generals, who I don’t know, who make decisions that could harm my country or my people.” Meanwhile her deputy, Yegor Kholmogorov, wrote a post looking at past examples of countries that changed defense ministers and chiefs of staff in order to win wars.

All this was preceded by a large-scale campaign, clearly approved by the Kremlin, criticizing ‘excesses’ in the on-going mobilization. Again, Simonyan was the focal point of this campaign, spending the whole week reporting stories about how recruitment officers were calling up those ineligible to serve due to their age or health.

Putin himself got involved Thursday, saying that in many cases people had been called up by mistake and should be sent back home.

Obviously, this campaign highlighting official concern about excesses is intended to ease the public’s shock about mobilization. Even figures from official pollsters show the greatest discontent with the authorities recorded since Feb. 24, as well as a rapid rise in public unease. However, Simonyan’s posts and broadcasts can also be read as criticism of Russia’s military leadership, which is facing unprecedented challenges.

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