Feud Between Russian Warlords Exposes Cracks in Kremlin’s War Machine

From a Wall Street Journal story by Thomas Grove headlined “Feud Between Russian Warlords Exposes Cracks in Kremkin’s War Machine”:

A growing feud between two of Russia’s most powerful warlords has broken out into the open following the withdrawal of the paramilitary Wagner group from eastern Ukrainian flashpoint city Bakhmut, exposing the rifts in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine ahead of an expected Ukrainian offensive.

The rivalry between Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov highlights some of the first public criticism aimed at Prigozhin, who has become one of the biggest thorns in the Kremlin’s side. His star rose in recent months as his troops slowly captured the eastern city of Bakhmut for Moscow, but in doing so Prigozhin spent months accusing the Russian defense ministry of failing to provide his troops with proper ammunition.

Earlier this week, as his troops were pulling out of the front-line city—to be replaced by Kadyrov’s forces, Prigozhin poured cold water on the ability of the Chechen forces to take the whole of Ukraine’s Donetsk province. Russia claims the entirety of the province, which it refers to as the Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR, as its own but still lacks complete control of the territory.

“Regarding the liberation of various towns and villages, I think they have the forces for it, but it’s not worth it for them to free all of DNR,” said Prigozhin on his Telegram channel. “They will occupy certain areas.”

The comments started a firestorm among Kadyrov’s loyalists, including his longtime ally Adam Delimkhanov, who threatened Prigozhin to meet in person to clear up any misunderstandings about their capabilities.

“Of course, Yevgeny, you don’t understand this, and you needn’t understand,” Delimkhanov said in a video posted to Telegram. “You can get in touch anytime and name the place where we can meet to explain whatever it is you don’t get.”

Another Kadyrov loyalist, Magomed Daudov, said Prigozhin was sowing panic among the population through his complaints about the defense ministry.

The deployment of Kadyrov’s troops, which are officially a part of the national guard but answer directly to him, could undermine Prigozhin’s position both on the battlefield and more broadly in Russian society, where he has gained a following for his public, and often expletive-laden, rants against what he called a corrupt and inefficient Russian military.

The use of Kadyrov’s forces to relieve the Wagner troops could also be a ploy by the Kremlin to escalate the rivalry between the two warlords, who joined forces last year to criticize the Russian defense ministry after regular forces repeatedly failed to strengthen the front lines and allow Ukrainian troops to make significant gains.

“The Kremlin may also be attempting to sever Kadyrov’s relationship with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and re-emphasize federal authority over Chechen forces,” the Institute for the Study of War wrote earlier this week.

Kadyrov, who became leader of Chechnya in 2007, depends wholly on the support of Putin. The public feud gives him a chance to reclaim his place as the president’s loyal foot soldier, a term he uses regularly to describe himself.

While Kadyrov and many of his allies fought against Moscow for an independent Chechnya following the fall of the Soviet Union, his father and he changed sides in a later conflict that Moscow won, returning federal control over the mountainous, mostly Muslim region and installing the Kadyrov family as its leaders.

Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin, who fought against Kadyrov in the first Chechen War, referred to the conflict in his own response to the Chechen leader’s supporters.

“We are always ready to meet man-to-man as we’re already acquainted from the first and second Chechen wars,” he wrote in a statement carried on Telegram.

The feud has erupted as Ukraine is expected to launch a major offensive aimed at reclaiming swaths of Russian-occupied territory in the country’s south and east.

The arrival of Kadyrov’s forces will be the first time in nearly a year that they will be operating on the front line.

Thomas Grove covers the confrontation between Russia and the West for The Wall Street Journal. He is based in Warsaw.

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