Russia’s failures during the “special military operation” – it not only lost the Kharkiv region in September, but also part of the territories immediately after their annexation following the results of fictitious referendums – gave rise to an “unprecedented, large-scale split in the ruling class”, writes The Guardian.
Vladimir Putin’s cronies are looking for scapegoats to blame for the military defeats. On the whole, the war, now in its eighth month, has plunged the representatives of the ruling elite into a state of uncertainty and even despair. There is a growing realization among many that this war cannot be won, the newspaper concludes from conversations with 15 former officials, as well as the military, political observers, journalists from state and opposition media.
“Someone will become a victim”
Some people from Putin’s entourage are trying to be quieter than water, lower than the grass, in order to maintain power or avoid punishment. Others, such as Chechnya’s head Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has stopped hiding his ties to the Wagner PMC and openly campaigns for criminals in the colonies to go to war, see the growing chaos as an opportunity to stand out to the Kremlin.
Kadyrov and Prigozhin have been openly attacking the leadership of the armed forces and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in recent days. Prigozhin “wants to show that he can fight better than the regular army,” former Wagner commander Marat Gabidullin, who knew him from his work in the PMC, which he left in 2019, told the newspaper. “We have always had tense relations with the Ministry of Defense, we never liked each other,” he added.
The standoff between Shoigu and Prigozhin has been going on since 2014, when the PMC was created after the annexation of Crimea, says a former senior military official who worked with them. According to him, Shoigu was not enthusiastic about the war in Donbass then, and now he did not really support the annexation of the occupied territories, but at the same time he remains absolutely loyal to Putin. And the conflict with Prigozhin escalated after the dismissal of Deputy Minister Dmitry Bulgakov, who was in charge of logistics and, as reported, helped “Putin’s cook” to obtain contracts for the supply of the army, says the source of The Guardian.
According to him, “Prigozhin will now take revenge on Shoigu.” He calls the creator of Wagner PMC a man “without morality, without conscience, without any hobbies … he is a machine in the worst sense of the word.”
Another former Department of Defense official describes the situation in the presidential entourage as follows:
Putin is a very destructive person, he will push different factions against each other and see what the best result will be. He doesn’t know how to build relationships, so eventually someone becomes a victim. Putin only wants to see what is best for himself and the war in Ukraine.
The official added: “Knowing Shoigu, I truly believe that he would be happy if he were fired right now. He wants to get out of this mess.”
The discord in the Russian leadership, caused by military defeats and mobilization, which Putin and his subordinates have promised many times not to announce, is also evidenced by the publication of the Washington Post. A person from Putin’s inner circle has criticized the president, the newspaper reported, citing US intelligence data. His dissatisfaction was caused by the way Putin manages the military, as well as the mistakes of those who lead the military campaign.
According to US intelligence officials, there is “growing anxiety” among those close to Putin.
There are “a lot of people in the Kremlin who are convinced that things are not going well or that this is the wrong course,” a senior Western official told WaPo. According to Yevgenia Albats, editor-in-chief of The New Times, at least 70% of the nomenklatura are against the war, according to her acquaintances among high-ranking officials, she told The Guardian. At the same time, according to her, they are “very afraid.”
Another journalist, who works for a state television channel with a wide range of contacts in power, says that a large part of the political elite was seized by “deep horror.” He told the newspaper:
The higher you go, the more desperate you feel. There was a general understanding that the war could not be won.
Another opinion was expressed by a high-ranking civil servant with whom the journalist Farida Rustamova spoke: “I clearly understand that we must win. This is the only possible option. And everything that is needed for this needs to be done now.” When asked what would happen if Russia lost, he replied that he could not imagine such a thing.
However, the state of complete confusion in which top officials are is confirmed by the fact that, as Rustamova writes, both supporters of the war and those who disagree with it can hardly answer the question about its ultimate goal and possible outcomes.
Despite the dissatisfaction and division, the risk of opposing Putin is too high, says political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. “This whole system is built around the leader. If you get rid of Putin, you need to be able to quickly demonstrate the result, but everyone knows that this is not possible now,” he says.