While Ukraine’s military has been successfully chasing Russian troops out of one territory after another, Vladimir Putin’s foot soldiers have apparently been turning their weapons on each other as the Russian leader’s “special military operation” continues to come apart at the seams in spectacular fashion.
The Kremlin’s flailing bid to get an edge on the battlefield by deploying mercenaries from the Wagner Group—which now includes hundreds of prison inmates—has reportedly backfired as the private military force butts heads with the Russian military.
The growing conflict resulted in a Wagner fighter gunning down a lieutenant colonel in the Russian army—a deadly episode of “friendly fire” that the Kremlin is said to be trying to sweep under the rug, according to the human rights group Gulagu.net.
“They are trying to hush up the incident and prevent publicity. And this is not the first emergency of its kind,” the group quoted a source as telling the Gulagu.net hotline.
The incident was also reported by two other Russian Telegram channels, though no details were provided on when or where the shooting is said to have taken place.
The alleged shooting is not the only recent instance of infighting between Russian troops.
Earlier this week, a mass brawl broke out between newly drafted Russian troops and contract soldiers at a military base outside Moscow, Baza reported. Nearly two dozen contract soldiers are said to have taken a beating from the draftees and were rescued after locking themselves in a separate room and phoning police for help. The fight reportedly erupted after some of the contract soldiers demanded the newly arrived draftees hand over their mobile phones and gear.
The tumult seen between the troops has also visibly carried over to Russia’s wider information space, with pro-Kremlin military bloggers getting increasingly outspoken in their criticisms of top military command and Putin’s more radical allies publicly deriding those in charge of the war.
“The controversies surrounding the poorly executed partial mobilization, coupled with significant Russian defeats in Kharkiv Oblast and around Lyman, have intensified infighting between pro-Putin Russian nationalist factions and are creating new fractures among voices who speak to Putin’s core constituencies,” the Institute for the Study of War wrote in its Tuesday assessment.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, one of the most vocal critics of the Russian Defense Ministry’s approach in recent days, announced Wednesday that “kind and beloved” Putin “personally” notified him he was being promoted to the rank of colonel general, a move that may be seen by some as a signal the Russian president is siding with hardliners like Kadyrov over his own defense officials.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the puppetmaster behind the Wagner Group, has also emerged with that camp, echoing Kadyrov’s complaints about the Russian military after a humiliating retreat from Lyman over the weekend.
Sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza the Russian leader is reluctant to chastise them for shit-talking the military command because he considers both the Wagner mercenaries and Chechen battalions “effective” in the war.
“Putin now finds himself in a dilemma. He cannot risk alienating the Kadyrov-Prigozhin camp, as he desperately needs Kadyrov’s Chechen forces and Prigozhin’s Wagner Group mercenaries to fight in Ukraine. Nor can he disenfranchise the MoD establishment, which provides the overwhelming majority of Russian military power in Ukraine and the institutional underpinnings needed to carry out the mobilization order and continue the war,” the ISW wrote.
After a series of catastrophic battlefield losses, Putin is now “interested in alternative methods of warfare” and those who offer them, one source told Meduza.
The very public discord between warring groups close to Putin has exposed glaring cracks in the Russian president’s war machine, even as Ukraine’s military plows ahead with a stunning counteroffensive to take back the country’s land. Ukraine reclaimed eight new villages in the Kherson region as of Tuesday night, President Volodymyr Zelensky said, and several others in Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk—territories that Putin, just days earlier, had proudly claimed were now part of Russia.
Asked on Wednesday to explain how Russia can claim territory from which its own troops retreated, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov offered an unconvincing response: “There’s no kind of contradiction in this. [The territories] will be with Russia forever, they will be returned.”