Even as the Kremlin moved to absorb parts of Ukraine in a sharp escalation of the conflict, the Russian military suffered new defeats that highlighted its deep problems on the battlefield and opened rifts at the top of the Russian government. The setbacks have badly dented the image of a powerful Russian military and added to the tensions surrounding an ill-planned mobilization. They have also fueled fighting among Kremlin insiders and left Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly cornered. Here is a look at the latest Russian losses, some of the reasons behind them and the potential consequences.
The mobilization offers no quick fix for Russia’s military woes. It will take months for the new recruits to train and form battle-ready units. Putin then upped the ante by abruptly annexing the occupied regions of Ukraine and voicing readiness to use “all means available” to protect them, a blunt reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
In an unprecedented sign of infighting in the higher echelons of the government, the Kremlin-backed regional leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has scathingly criticized the top military brass, accusing them of incompetence and nepotism. Kadyrov blamed Col. Gen. Alexander Lapin for failing to secure supplies and reinforcements for his troops that led to their retreat from Lyman. He declared that the general deserves to be stripped of his rank and sent to the front line as a private to “wash off his shame with his blood.”
Kadyrov also directly accused Russia’s top military officer, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, of covering up Lapin’s blunders — a pointed attack that fueled speculation that the Chechen leader might have forged an alliance with other hawkish members of the Russian elite against the top military leadership. In a blunt statement, Kadyrov also urged the Kremlin to consider using low-yield nuclear weapons against Ukraine to reverse the course of the war, a call that appeared to reflect the growing popularity of the idea among the Kremlin hawks.
In a show of continuing support for Kadyrov, Putin promoted him to colonel general to mark his birthday, a move certain to anger the top brass. And while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described Kadyrov’s statement as overly emotional, he strongly praised the Chechen leader’s role in the fighting and his troops’ valor. In another sign of intensifying dissent at the top, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a millionaire businessman dubbed “Putin’s chef,” lashed out at the governor of St. Petersburg, charging that his failure to provide assistance for Prigozhin’s Wagner private security company amounts to supporting Ukraine.
Some other members of the Russian elite offered quick support for Kadyrov and Prigozhin, who have increasingly served as frontmen for the hawkish circles in Moscow. Retired Lt. Gen. Andrei Gurulev, a senior member of the lower house of the Russian parliament, strongly backed the Chechen leader, saying that the Russian defeat in Lyman was rooted in the top brass’ desire to report only good news to Putin.“It’s a problem of total lies and positive reports from top to bottom,” he said.