Two key members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle have personally told the Russian president their concerns about the way the war in Ukraine is progressing, intel officials told VICE World News.
Two NATO intelligence officials based in Brussels confirmed a report in the Washington Post that Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Russian mercenary company Wagner, and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who controls his own large paramilitary force, have directly criticised Russia’s war effort to Putin.
Considered key Putin allies despite no official leadership roles in the Russian military or intelligence establishment, Prigozhin and Kadyrov’s troops – mercenaries and regime-loyal Chechen paramilitary forces, respectively – have played prominent roles in the invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s traditional military has faltered in Ukraine with heavy losses of men and equipment, poor logistics and an increasingly dire lack of manpower, pushing Putin to authorise a national mobilisation of at least 300,000 conscripts.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post identified Prigozhin – a former convict – as the Kremlin insider who has directly criticised the performance of the Russian military high command for its repeated failures to defeat an increasingly confident Ukrainian military in the war.
“The stories are absolutely correct,” said a NATO intelligence official, who focuses on Russian military operations and was not authorised to be named in the press. “Prigozhin is openly attacking Russian military officials close to Putin for the failures of the war in an effort to wrest control of money, resources and political influence from the Russian Army high command.”
Both officials VICE World News spoke to said the reports were based on electronic intercepts of communications inside Russia, as well as open-source and even human intelligence.
“It’s hardly a secret that Putin enjoys palace intrigue and playing his underlings off against each other. It’s practically his personal doctrine to ensure no opposition to his rule can form,” said the NATO official who focuses on Russia military operations. “But what works in managing a hybrid mafia state like Russia doesn’t have the same positive effect on institutions like the Russian Army and Ministry of Defence officials in a war that’s hardly going well.”
The Russian military suffered huge casualties and losses of critical military equipment in what Western military experts unanimously agree was a terribly flawed first attempt to seize Kyiv in February and March. Since then the war has turned into a meat grinder for Russia as key fronts in the north collapsed in September and Ukrainian forces appear on the verge of liberating Kherson, the largest city that Russia managed to capture and hold in the earliest days of the war.
With limited manpower available after key Russian military units suffered tens of thousands of casualties among better trained and equipped troops, the war effort has turned to masses of poorly trained and vetted conscripts on the part of the military, while Wagner has publicly recruited hundreds if not thousands of mercenary fighters from prisons or former convicts not normally eligible for military service.
Ukrainian officials have noted that Wagner troops in key spots on the frontline have performed better than the Russian Army but at the expense of huge casualties among freed prisoners, who were offered freedom from prison if they survive a tour on the front lines. It appears few, however, survive long enough to enjoy the amnesty.
“Wagner does fight a bit better than the Russian Army right now but the losses are incredible: Entire units are regularly wiped out trying to seize objectives that often make little military sense,” said the second NATO intelligence official. “There’s a strong sense that Prigozhin is more interested in public displays of fealty to the boss that sound good in briefings but offer no tactical value.”
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Prigozhin had directly attacked the performance of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to Putin with such aggression that the debate was included in US President Joe Biden’s daily intelligence briefings as a sign that Putin allies were trying to wrest control of the war effort from the military itself.
“Prigozhin is a gangster who smells weakness and has a hunger for more power,” said the second intelligence official. “He sees the failure of the Russian military not as a terribly dangerous moment that reveals Russia’s deep rooted corruption and weakness, but as a chance to expand his own sphere of influence. Kadyrov has been slightly more careful but also sees himself as a potential saviour to the Russian state that would elevate his profile in Russia from beyond a local thug empowered to keep a lid on rebellious Chechens.”
Shoigu, both officials VICE World News spoke to said, remains under huge pressure to turn the tide of the war and expedite hundreds of thousands of often press-ganged recruits – the mobilisation drove tens of thousands of Russian men to flee the country to avoid service – into a useful military force.
“[Shoigu is] the minister of cannon fodder right now and Putin knows that he’s too mediocre to betray the regime or pose a threat, but seems willing for now to allow gangsters like Kadyrov and Prigozhin a bit of room to form their own power centres,” said the first NATO military official. “It’s like [President Abraham] Lincoln’s ‘Team of Rivals,’ except it's not really a team and everyone is either inept, a complete gangster, or both.”