Victory claims on small Ukrainian town reveal rift between Russian troops

He also mocked the Russians for “gnawing among themselves to whom a tactical advance should be credited”, saying it was “a clear signal of failure to the enemy”.

After a series of embarrassing setbacks, the feud has overshadowed what would be the Kremlin’s first battlefield success in months.

It came within a week of the Defense Ministry announcing it would replace its overall commander in Ukraine after only three months in charge. General Valery Gerasimov took over from General Sergei Surovikin, who will now serve as one of Gerasimov’s deputies.

Prigozhin has previously accused Gerasimov, who was involved in the initial planning of the invasion, of incompetence, and has scathingly criticized the military leadership for blunders in Ukraine.

He has found a powerful ally in Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has deployed elite troops from his southern Russian region to fight in Ukraine and attacked the military leadership and the Kremlin for being too soft and indecisive.

While both have pledged loyalty to Putin, their public attacks on his top generals openly challenged the Kremlin’s monopoly on such criticism, something Russia’s tightly controlled political system had not seen before.

Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin attends a funeral for one of his fighters
Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin attends a funeral for one of his fighters outside St. Petersburg, Russia, in December.Aleksey Smagin / Girl via AP File

Gerasimov’s appointment shows that Putin “sees a threat” from the couple, Frank Ledwidge, an associate professor of military capabilities and strategy at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, told NBC News Saturday.

He added that the general was used by the Russian leader as a “human shield” to “avoid blame for further military disasters”.

Prighozin, who toured Russia’s penal colonies recruiting prisoners in September and promised bounties and pardons in return for service, has offered volunteers higher wages than are available within the Russian military, Ledwidge said.

Prighozin, who was once imprisoned after being convicted of assault and robbery, recently released a video showing about 20 convicts being allowed to leave combat ranks after six months on the frontline, while also making it clear that everyone who would break ranks would face a cruel punishment.

For Rajan Menon, a director of the Washington think tank Defense Priorities, the recent upheaval suggested that “there is great chaos and power at the top of the Russian government.”

He said power struggles between the defense ministry and mercenaries could temporarily benefit Putin, who could act as a “referee handing things out to different groups”, but said this would be “destabilizing” militarily.

It “probably occurred to both Prigozhin and Kadyrov” that if the war ends badly, there could be a post-Putin Russia,” he said.

“Putin hasn’t been this politically vulnerable for some time,” he said. “I’m not saying he’s about to be impeached, but this is a very difficult situation for him and this is a war he needs to win.”

Associated Press contributed.

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