January 16, 2023

Kremlin and Prigozhin clash publicly over who captured town of Soledar

Institute for the Study of War

The Kremlin continues to publicly challenge Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s claims that Wagner Group forces were solely responsible for capturing Soledar, Donetsk Oblast, on January 12. Russian President Vladimir Putin attributed the success on the frontlines to Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and General Staff plans when responding to a journalist’s question on January 15 regarding Russian advances in Soledar. Putin’s statement was aired live on state-controlled TV and was likely a deliberate effort to undermine Prigozhin’s influence within the Russian information space, given that Putin has previously refrained from commenting on tactical advances in Ukraine. Putin may have also sought to demonstrate he retains control over traditional Russian mass media, while Prigozhin continues to grow an audience on Telegram and other social media networks. The Russian MoD, in turn, also continued to report that Russian Southern Military District (SMD) assault detachments and Russian airborne troops are attacking Ukrainian positions around Bakhmut and likely deliberately excluded mentioning Wagner forces in its January 15 daily briefing.

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov possibly indirectly accused Prigozhin of deliberately exposing the conflict between the Russian MoD and Wagner in the Russian information space. Peskov attempted to dispel reports of an ongoing conflict between Prigozhin and the Russian MoD, stating on January 16 that these reports are “products of information manipulations.” Peskov, however, added that while most of such manipulations come from Russia’s ”enemies,” the Kremlin has ”friends” who also behave in a similar way. Peskov’s statement may have been tacitly aimed at Prigozhin, whose criticism of the Russian MoD is growing increasingly brazen. Peskov also continued Putin’s efforts to undermine Wagner’s effort to advance a narrative that only Wagner forces were responsible for capturing Soledar, noting that Russians will remember both Russian servicemembers and Wagner forces for their achievements.

Prigozhin is continuing his efforts to undermine faith in the Russian MoD and in Putin-aligned actors. Prigozhin directly responded to Peskov’s statement in an interview question about the MoD-Prigozhin conflict, stating that he has no reason to not trust Peskov. Prigozhin could have easily disproved reports of the conflict by simply denying them, but continued his tactic of using deliberately vague messaging in order to generate more discussion within the Russian information space, ultimately aimed at undermining confidence in the MoD and Putin. Prigozhin also presented medals to Wagner forces for the capture of Soledar on January 15, including symbolically awarding a fighter who previously received a medal of courage from Putin.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the Russo-Ukrainian War is in a “decisive phase” on January 15. Stoltenburg told German news outlet Handelsblatt on January 15 that NATO countries recognize the current situation and must “provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to win.” Stoltenberg’s statement supports ISW’s January 15 assessment that the Kremlin likely intends to take decisive strategic action in 2023. Stoltenberg’s statement does not entail that the war is in its final phase or that Russian forces are planning to employ all available resources in impending actions. Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications representative Andriy Yusov remarked on January 15 that Russian President Vladimir Putin has recognized that Russian forces cannot take Ukraine quickly and is considering waging a drawn-out war of attrition. ISW noted on January 15 that the Kremlin retains its long-term maximalist goals to seize Ukraine and is likely considering multiple courses of action to achieve those goals.

Stoltenburg dismissed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s repeated concerns that the Western provision of weapons to Ukraine could cause a nuclear escalation. Stoltenburg stated that “this risk of using nuclear weapons is low” and that countries including China conveyed to the Kremlin that “nuclear weapons must not be used.” Stoltenburg’s statements align with continuous ISW assessments that the Kremlin is extremely unlikely to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

A prominent milblogger revived pre-February 2022 discussions of Kremlin intent to return close Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk to power in Ukraine. Igor Girkin, a former Russian officer and prominent nationalist voice, claimed on January 16 that the Kremlin hopes to place Medvedchuk at the head of an alternative Ukrainian government. Girkin and Kremlin-linked milblogger Sasha Kots critiqued Medvedchuk’s suitability and the feasibility of him ever taking such a position. This conversation resembles prior media speculation of a potential Kremlin plan to install disgraced former Ukrainian dictator Viktor Yanukovych as the leader of Ukraine in early 2022.

The appointment of the Russian Chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, as theater commander of Russian forces in Ukraine notably did not spark a significant wave of criticism within the Russian nationalist milblogger discourse. Milbloggers largely claimed that Gerasimov’s appointment signifies that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is retaking responsibility for the war. The milbloggers connected Gerasimov’s appointment to several ongoing issues including internal MoD tensions; conflict between the MoD and the Wagner Group; and the poor state of the war. Milbloggers adopted a defeatist stance regarding Gerasimov’s appointment, noting that the fate of Gerasimov’s own military career rests on the long-term outcome of the war. Some more critical nationalist voices stated that Gerasimov’s appointment is an example of the Kremlin’s inability to learn from its historic defeats, given that Gerasimov failed to keep occupied territories in northern Ukraine at the start of the war, but such discourse has been limited. Milbloggers have largely expressed hope that Gerasimov will continue to cooperate with his predecessor (now his deputy commander), Commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces Army General Sergey Surovikin and continue missile strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure. The mixed hopeful but apathetic milblogger response may indicate their hopes that the Russian MoD and the Kremlin are beginning to realistically envision the war in Ukraine by introducing a centralized command structure to take charge of the military campaign.

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin continues to challenge Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s claims that only Wagner forces seized Soledar, Donetsk Oblast.
  • Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov possibly indirectly accused Prigozhin of deliberately exposing the conflict between the Russian MoD and Wagner in the Russian information space.
  • Prigozhin continued his efforts to undermine faith in the Russian MoD and Putin-aligned actors.
  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the Russo-Ukrainian War is in a “decisive phase,” which does not entail that the war is in its final phase or that Russian forces are planning to employ all resources in impending actions.
  • A prominent milblogger revived pre-February 2022 discussions of Kremlin intent to return close Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk to power in Ukraine.
  • The appointment of Russian Chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov as theater commander of Russian forces in Ukraine notably did not spark a significant wave of criticism within the Russian nationalist milblogger discourse.
  • Russian forces continued to launch localized assaults to regain lost positions around Svatove and in the Kupyansk direction as Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations around Kreminna.
  • Russian forces made additional territorial gains north of Bakhmut and may be intensifying attacks south of Bakhmut near Klishchiivka.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks near Avdiivka and Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continued efforts accumulate manpower in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast and to develop new logistic routes between Russia and southern Ukraine.
  • Low discipline among Russian forces continues to directly endanger Russian soldiers and limit force effectiveness.
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