Who Will Win Vladimir Putin’s Game of Thrones?

A wild scramble for power and a deadly blame game are underway following the removal of “General Armageddon” as Russia’s top commander in Ukraine, analysts tell VICE World News.
vladimir putin ukraine Sergei Surovikin
PHOTO: SERGEI GUNEYEV; Mikhail Svetlov; GAVRIIL GRIGOROV; Sergey Fadeichev; Mikhail Svetlov; SputnikAFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reshuffle of the senior officials in charge of the Ukraine war is a ploy to set off infighting among his underlings that will make it easier to pin blame for the inevitable failure of the invasion, analysts and Western officials have told VICE World News.

On the 11th of January, Putin replaced General Sergei Surovikin – who had been on the job only 90 days – as the overall commander in Ukraine with Surovikin’s boss, General Valery Gerasimov, the army’s highest ranking officer, in an effort, according to a Kremlin statement, to better manage operations and simplify lines of command. 

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With only limited diplomatic and media access to Putin’s inner circle, understanding the internal machinations of the regime has grown increasingly difficult, according to officials. The stalled Ukraine invasion appears to have pitted multiple Russian power centres against one another to avoid blame for the military debacle, while also currying favour with Putin himself. Analysts say that as Putin allows his underlings to openly battle one another for influence, it becomes increasingly difficult to predict the regime’s behaviour as he waits to see how rivalries play out.  

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began almost 11 months ago, has been a tactical and strategic disaster, with massive losses of soldiers, equipment, and reputation. The course of the war has seen Putin implement unpopular mobilisation plans that have sent hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing the country. The ability of Ukraine, which has a smaller population and military, to resist the initial Russian invasion before eventually pursuing a series of successful counter attacks this summer has roiled much of the Russian defence establishment as commanders and officials manoeuvre to avoid becoming the fall guys for the overall failure.

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Putin’s overall total command of every aspect of the Russian political and military system often leaves Western analysts and intelligence services scrambling to determine if moves are being made for political, military or personal reasons, according to multiple experts.

Seeking to exploit the official army’s failures in a struggle for influence, Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the private military company Wagner, has frequently criticised the army and its leadership for poor battlefield performance. After a social-media-documented tour of Russian prisons, where thousands volunteered to serve six months in exchange for commuted sentences, Wagner deployed an estimated 20,000 fighters to Ukraine.

Prigozhin, who often appears alongside his mercenaries on social media, is widely seen as being allied with Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, and rivals to both Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Shoigu has his own private military company, Patriot, while Kadyrov also controls thousands of paramilitary fighters in Ukraine, known as the Kadyrovski. 

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Yevgeny Prigozhin attends the funeral of a Wagner group fighter who died during in Ukraine in December. PHOTO: AP Photo

Last week, Prigozhin and the Defence Ministry were caught in a public spat over taking credit for the capture of Soledar, a small town that Ukraine says it still partially holds, just the latest in a series of public statements and conflicts among the Russian leadership that’s reeling from its poor performance in the war. 

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“Kremlinology has returned,” said a NATO military intelligence officer, who lacks permission to be quoted in the media, describing the Cold War-era efforts to predict the close Soviet leadership’s behaviour. “Putin has designed a system where access to Putin and his favour is the only thing that matters, so rivals are forming centres of power to influence Putin, who himself needs to set other people up to take the blame for the catastrophic performance of the Russian system.”

Russian military affairs analyst Mark Galeotti, whose recent book Putin’s Wars extensively details Russian military history under Putin, said in a multi-part social media analysis that the decision to put Gerasimov in overall charge was more likely political than military in nature.  

“What did Surovikin do wrong? Nothing, really… there is a limit to what one new commander can do in 3 months,” Galeoti wrote on Twitter. “For Gerasimov (who [we] were being assured was out of favour and about to be sacked... or who was Putin's right hand man...) it is a kind of demotion, or at least the most poisoned of chalices. It's now on him.”

Convicted in 1995 of arms trafficking before being pardoned by President Boris Yeltsin, Surovikin gained the nickname “General Armageddon” after shooting protesters in Moscow in 1991 and his scorched-earth approach when commanding Russian forces in Syria in 2017. Meanwhile, Gerasimov is seen as being in serious trouble for his army’s disastrous performance in Ukraine.

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Putin and Gerasimov. PHOTO: Mikhail Kireyev / Sputnik / AFP

“It’s a mix of palace intrigue and Putin making Gerasimov personally responsible for the failure of the [Russian] offensive this spring that everyone seems convinced is coming,” said the NATO officer. “Gerasimov and Shoigu now sit in the direct line of fire and Kadyrov and, particularly, Prigozhin wait to see if they stumble. And they probably will [stumble] because Putin doesn’t appear to have realistic expectations, it’s hard to plan for success when the entire system is lying to the boss about its capabilities.”

Wagner has a very public role in the war effort, from recruiting in prisons to repeated appearances on social media. This included an incident this summer where a post by Prigozhin apparently revealed the location of Wagner’s frontline headquarters, which Ukraine promptly destroyed with artillery. It makes the internal dynamics at work in Putin’s inner circle very difficult to see, said both analysts. 

“So what does this actually mean? Confirmation, if we needed it, that there will be serious offensives coming, and that even Putin recognises that poor coordination has been an issue,” wrote Galeotti. “Gerasimov is hanging by a thread. I don't think this is intended to create a pretext to sack him as the war is too important and Putin can sack who he wants. But he needs some kind of win or a career ends in ignominy.”

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The NATO officer suggests Putin, by nature, will want his underlings paranoid and uncertain about their standing, while also ruthlessly eliminating their rivals in competition for his favour, which is key to survival. 

“Putin wants nobody to understand what he’s up to, it’s his nature as a former KGB officer,” said the official. “But the ‘plan’ is to set Shoigu and Gerasimov against Prigozhin and Kadyrov, see who wins and if it’s a good result, take credit for it. Failure and there’s plenty of bodies to blame.”

For his part, Prigozhin spent the weekend making social media appearances, claiming to be on the frontline near the small salt-mining town of Soledar, which Russia claims it has recently wrested from Ukrainian control. Wagner has thrust thousands of mercenaries and freed convicts into the bloody battle to control the nearby city of Bakhmut over the past six weeks.

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Ukrainian troops with a Grad missile launcher outside Soledar. photo: Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Although the area is dismissed by most experts as militarily unimportant, Wagner’s commitment to taking the region is seen as Prigozhin attempting to provide Putin with a tangible victory after months of setbacks. Most estimates suggest at least 500 of the mercenaries have been killed in the battle so far, with Ukrainian troops reporting repeated, costly, human wave attacks by the group.

“Bakhmut has become symbolic for both sides,” said the NATO officer. “Denying the Russians something just because they want it makes sense but only to a point. Both have taken a lot of casualties for some ground I’m not sure is militarily worth the effort.”