October 7, 2022

Institute for the Study of War: Newly mobilized Russian forces are depending on local authorities for food, training and other support amid growing doubts about stability of Putin’s regime

Institute for the Study of War

Western and Russian reports of fractures within the Kremlin are gaining traction within the Russian information space, undermining the appearance of stability of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. The Washington Post reported that US intelligence obtained information that a member of Putin’s inner circle directly criticized Putin’s “extensive military shortcomings” during the war in Ukraine, and other Western and Kremlin-affiliated officials noted rising criticism of Putin’s mishandling of the war and mobilization.[1] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov acknowledged that there have been debates in the Kremlin regarding mobilization in a statement to The Washington Post but denied all allegations of a member of the Kremlin confronting Putin. ISW cannot verify any of these reports are real or assess the likelihood that these arguments or fractures will change Putin’s mind about continuing the war, let alone if they will destabilize his regime. Word of fractures within Putin’s inner circle have reached the hyper-patriotic and nationalist milblogger crowd, however, undermining the impression of strength and control that Putin has sought to portray throughout his reign.

Some Russian milbloggers have begun speculating that there are two factions within the Kremlin following Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Private Military Company financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s harsh criticism of the Russian higher military command.[2] A milblogger told his nearly one million readers that Kadyrov and Prigozhin are part of the faction that seeks to continue the war and accomplish its ideological goals regardless of cost. The milblogger noted that the faction opposed to them consisted of government officials who wish to negotiate with the West to save their assets and residences in the West but are too afraid to confront Putin directly. The milblogger expressed hope that the pro-war faction will defeat the faction that fails to see that Russia cannot afford to end the war.

The presentation of fundamental disagreements within Putin’s inner circle and challenges to his decisions, even if quiet, within the Russian nationalist space risks depicting Putin as weak and not fully in control of his government. The truth or falseness of that presentation is less important than its injection into the audiences on which Putin most relies for continued support in his war. Putin himself may have externalized his own concerns about this break in the façade of his power and of the unanimity of his trusted senior officials in an odd exchange with a teacher on October 5.[3] Putin asked the teacher how he taught his students about the causes of the Pugachev Rebellion that challenged Catherine the Great in the mid-1770s.[4] The teacher, from Izhevsk, one of the towns that Pugachev captured during his revolt, offered answers that did not satisfy Putin, including the observation that the rebellion had occurred because of the appearance of “a leader who could capitalize on a wave of dissatisfaction,” and that the lesson to be drawn from that episode of history was “that it is necessary to respect the views of other members of society.” Putin offered his own answer: “The leader [Pugachev] claimed to be tsar. And how did that arise? Why was that possible?…Because of the element of weakening of the central power.”[5] The exchange was bizarre and fascinating since there is no reason Pugachev’s Rebellion should have been on Putin’s mind at this time, nor any reason for him to worry about someone else “claiming to be tsar.”—unless, of course, Putin himself perceives a weakening of the central power, i.e., himself.[6]

Kadyrov and Prigozhin will likely attempt to make minor ground advances in Donetsk Oblast to maintain their prominence and reputation in the nationalist and proxy information spaces. Russian forces have been making incremental advances around Bakhmut and Avdiivka between October 6 and October 7, likely with the support of Wagner and Kadyrov’s elements in the area. Some milbloggers and Ukrainian officials reported that Prigozhin committed 1,000 of his troops to strengthen positions in Lysychansk to secure Russian frontlines following the collapse of the Lyman frontline.[7] Head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Denis Pushilin even awarded Kadyrov the title of hero of the DNR.[8] The claims about Kadyrov and Prigozhin making gains and preparing to save the day coincides with Kremlin efforts to improve the reputation of the Commander of the Central Military District, Colonel-General Alexander Lapin whom they both attacked earlier.[9] Milbloggers even reported meeting Lapin, who is now reportedly commanding the Svatove-Kreminna frontline in Luhansk Oblast.[10]

Russian President Vladimir Putin may have waited to announce that he had replaced Eastern Military District (EMD) Commander Aleksandr Chaiko until Putin could use Chaiko as a scapegoat for Russian military failures in Kharkiv and Lyman. Russian media reported on October 7 that Putin replaced Chaiko with Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov. Chaiko is the second military district commander to be replaced since the Russian lines in Kharkiv collapsed—Putin replaced the Western Military District commander on October 3, as ISW previously reported.[11] Oddly, Russian milbloggers first reported that Muradov had replaced Chaiko on September 4, but the Kremlin has yet to formally confirm the appointment.[12] State-run and independent media outlets quoted the governor of Dagestan congratulating Muradov on his appointment and cited an entry in the Unified State Register of Legal Entities to confirm the replacement.[13] Muradov had previously commanded the eastern grouping of Russian forces in Ukraine, which is likely comprised of elements of the EMD, as of July.[14]

Key Takeaways

  • Western and Russian reports of fractures within the Kremlin are gaining traction within the Russian information space, undermining the appearance of stability of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin may have waited to announce that he had replaced Eastern Military District (EMD) Commander Aleksandr Chaiko until he needed to use Chaiko as a scapegoat for Russian military failures in Kharkiv Oblast and Lyman, Donetsk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces likely continued counteroffensive operations along the Kreminna-Svatove road in western Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to establish defensive positions in northern Kherson Oblast, and Ukrainian and Russian sources reported ongoing battles north and northwest of Kherson City.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast.
  • Anecdotal reports of poor conditions for mobilized personnel in the Russian information space are continuing to fuel the accurate narrative of Kremlin and Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) incompetence.
  • Russian officials offered basic concessions for mobilized men and their families on October 7 but continue to rely on local governments and other non-federal institutions to provide support, including food and training, to newly mobilized men.
  • Russian occupation authorities in Donetsk Oblast are continuing to forcibly mobilize Ukrainian civilians, belying Russian claims that residents of newly-annexed territories will not be mobilized.
  • Ukrainian officials in newly liberated Kharkiv Oblast continue to uncover Russian torture chambers and other human rights abuses.
  • Russian occupation officials have likely failed to repair necessary civilian infrastructure in occupied and illegally-annexed parts of Ukraine in time for winter as temperatures drop.

(for full report:  https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-october-7)

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