As Russia continues to get routed in eastern Ukraine – losing territory, machinery and personnel to an emboldened Ukrainian counteroffensive – infighting has intensified in the Kremlin. Looking for someone to blame, the various factions are increasingly attacking Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Ministry, and seeking an escalation of hostilities in Ukraine.
When Russia lost the town of Lyman less than 24 hours after illegally annexing four regions that included it, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called for a tactical nuclear strike on Ukraine. He also lashed out against the General Staff, and threatened to send Central Military District Commander Alexander Lapin to the front to ‘cleanse his shame in blood’. While the Kremlin was forced to downplay Kadyrov’s ’emotional’ remarks, yesterday’s missile strikes against Kyiv seem in part like a desperate measure by Putin to assuage hawks.
Taken together, it suggests that President Vladimir Putin, who has balanced the interests of powerful government clans for over 20 years, is losing control. The head of GCHQ Jeremy Fleming has made a similar assessment today, saying that Russian are ‘seeing just how badly Putin has misjudged the situation’.
While Kadyrov has stopped short of directly naming Putin’s close ally Shoigu, he is the one implicitly being scapegoated. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Kadyrov is being backed up by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the private military company Wagner. Putin has leaned on Wagner to fight his wars, and Prigozhin’s bad blood and rivalry with Shoigu over money and government contracts is well known. ‘These punks should be shipped to the front barefoot with machine guns,’ Prigozhin said.
Kadyrov’s calls for a nuclear strike and Prigozhin’s blustering might seem, at first, to serve the Kremlin’s purposes by playing bad cops that make the Kremlin look conciliatory by comparison. But in reality, they are boxing Putin in, chipping away at his power.