Friends, rivals and enemies took their seats in the Grand Kremlin Palace as Vladimir Putin gathered the country’s elite to formalise Russia’s illegal annexation of four occupied regions in Ukraine.
The ceremony was meant to portray strength and unity, but within 24 hours had been overshadowed by Russia’s failures on the battlefield. These losses, which continued into this week on the southern and eastern fronts in Ukraine, have led to a major, unprecedented rupture within the ruling class as the Kremlin seeks scapegoats for a series of military embarrassments.
The following account is based on 15 interviews with former government and defence officials, members of the military, political observers, journalists, opposition members, and an inmate at a prison where Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin recruited soldiers to join his mercenary group in Ukraine.
The seven-month-long Russian invasion of its neighbour has plunged the Russian ruling elite into uncertainty, the sources say, and within it a growing understanding the war cannot be won.
Some ambitious officials have seen opportunity in the chaos, pitching to the Kremlin on ways to turn around a failing war and a botched mobilisation. Others are lying low, seeking to hold on to power or avoid punishment. Western intelligence agencies have reported high levels of dissatisfaction among the Russian army and in the country’s elite. Some have even suggested a coup could take place.
Two of Vladimir Putin’s most notorious lieutenants, Prigozhin and the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, have openly declared war against the defence minister, Putin loyalist Sergei Shoigu, and his top generals following a series of disastrous defeats that have left Russia’s army in retreat.
Vladimir Putin and Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu in August 2022. Photograph: AP
“Putin is a very destructive personality, he will play the different factions off each other and see what the best outcome will be,” a former defence ministry official told the Guardian. “He doesn’t know how to fix relationships, so in the end, someone will fall victim. Putin just wants to see what is best for him and the war in Ukraine.”
Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner commander who knows Prigozhin from his time at the paramilitary group, said he wasn’t “surprised to see Prigozhin stepping into the spotlight” at this moment.
“On the current wave of patriotism, he wants to position himself as a fierce defender of the motherland who created a professional military organisation. He wants to show that he can fight better than the regular army. We always had tensions with the ministry of defence, we really didn’t like each other.”
According to a former senior defence official who worked with Shoigu and Prigozhin, the rivalry between the two men is a longstanding feud that goes back to the founding of Wagner in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. It was exacerbated, the person said, when Shoigu recently fired deputy defence minister Dmitry Bulgakov, an official who had reportedly helped Prigozhin obtain lucrative contracts supplying the army.
“Prigozhin will now be out for revenge against Shoigu,” that person said. He described Prigozhin as a person with “no morals, no conscience, and no hobbies … He is a machine in the bad sense of the word.”
Prigozhin has found an unlikely ally in Kadyrov, the volatile leader of Chechnya who has established the North Caucasus republic as a personal fiefdom in exchange for securing its loyalty to Russia. Yet in the recent conflict, he has emerged as one of the harshest critics of the Russian defence ministry, claiming his own fighters could take Kyiv within days even after the Russian army had been repulsed.
Shortly after the Russian defeat last week at Lyman, a crucial railway hub in the Donetsk region, Kadyrov unleashed a withering attack on the Russian general staff and at the central military district commander Alexander Lapin responsible for the city’s defence.
“The shame isn’t that Lapin is incompetent,” Kadyrov wrote on Telegram. “It’s that he’s being shielded from above by the leadership in the General Staff. If it was up to me, I would bust him down to a private, take away his medals and send him with a rifle to the front in order to cleanse his shame in blood.”
“Military nepotism will not lead anywhere good,” he added.
“Beautiful, Ramzan, keep it up,” Prigozhin chimed in. “These punks should be shipped to the front barefoot with machine guns.”
Putin for years has pitted his underlings against one another in order to prevent them from uniting against him. Since early in the war, rumours have circulated through Moscow about fistfights at the Kremlin involving Shoigu and other officials (none have been confirmed).
“This balancing game might work in peacetime, but right now it distracts from the war efforts,” said Marat Gelman, a former adviser to Vladimir Putin and now a critic of the Kremlin leader.
These kinds of public spats are “new, important, and unprecedented too”, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a veteran Russian political scientist. “We haven’t seen such an open and public battle amongst the elites before for Putin’s attention.”
One Chechnya watcher said that Kadyrov’s criticism of the military reflected his ambitions to be “something more than just the head of a region”. The former defence official similarly said that Kadyrov was aiming for a senior role in the government.
“He knows that war is his time to shine, he has to strike now,” the former defence official said.
“Everyone is playing the blame game, and Kadyrov is at the forefront of it,” said Farida Rustamova, a Russian journalist who has written on divisions in the Russian elite. “He sees himself as one of the leaders of the war. Like the son Putin never had. It feels like a snowball that is getting bigger and bigger with every defeat.”
The two men are not the only ones leading a pile-on against the Russian military. TV propagandists such as Margarita Simonyan and Vladimir Soloviev have openly criticised the execution of the draft, accusing the military of fomenting instability in the country by attempting to recruit Russians unfit for service.
“Our people are not stupid,” said Andrei Kartapolov, a former army general and head of the State Duma’s defence committee, while accusing the military of lying in its daily updates on the war. “They can see that they are not being told the truth.”
A Russian-installed official in Ukraine even suggested Shoigu should shoot himself because of failures in the Ukraine conflict.
The attacks on the defence ministry come at one of the most dangerous moments in the war, after Russia’s army has lost thousands of square miles of territory and has been unable to stabilise its lines in Kharkiv, Donetsk or now in the Kherson region.
“The Kremlin is looking for scapegoats. There have been three obvious failures: the start of the war, the latest military failures, and the botched mobilisation,” said Gelman, the former Putin adviser.
Sign up to First Edition
Archie Bland and Nimo Omer take you through the top stories and what they mean, free every weekday morning
Shoigu and other top military officials are the obvious target. Once seen by Russia’s public as the man who modernised Russia’s army and oversaw the successful 2014 Crimea operation, Shoigu is now facing a backlash for the military’s failures. And there are clear temptations to sack him.
“There are always ways to let off pressure,” said a well-connected Moscow political observer, who asked not to be named when discussing the military. “We have a wonderful minister of defence. A fantastic chief of the general army staff. If the defeats continue … there are always possibilities [to sack them]. And everyone will support it. They’ll say [Putin’s] finally acting tough, punishing the guilty.”
The feeling may be mutual. According to the former defence official, “knowing Shoigu, I truly believe he would be happy to get sacked right now. He wants out of this mess.”
The native of Tuva had always been an unenthusiastic supporter of the 2014 war in the Donbas but was overruled by a cadre of hawkish Kremlin advisers including Nikolai Patrushev, the person said. He also was not in favour of the more recent “annexations” of occupied Ukrainian territory, he added.
But Putin knows he can trust Shoigu and sacking him would be deeply embarrassing, said that official.
“Even if Shiogu isn’t happy with what is happening, he’ll always be loyal to Putin and do his job,” the person said. “Putin knows he can fully trust him.”
That reflected a sense among a number of Russian elites that despite the challenges posed by the upstarts that the weight of Russia’s main ministries: the army, FSB, police and others would far exceed the threat posed by them.
Kadyrov didn’t have the authority to tell Putin to replace his defence minister, said a former top official. And Kadyrov was considerably more measured in his private interactions with Putin than in his public statements, the person said. Prigozhin, meanwhile, was just an “operator”.
“I cannot imagine that the FSB would allow either Prigozhin or Kadyrov to acquire any political power,” said Yevgenia Albats, a Russian investigative journalist and editor of the New Times. “It’s impossible.”
Albats, who recently left Russia after being targeted repeatedly for her reporting, said that her contacts among Russian officials estimated that at least 70% of top officials – people she referred to as the nomenklatura – were opposed to the war.
Another well-connected journalist who works on state television said that “intense dread” has taken hold of much of the political elite.
“The higher you go, the more desperation you feel. There is general understanding now that the war can’t be won.”
Albats said that for now, the opposition to the war that has taken hold among senior officials was unlikely to threaten Putin himself.
“They’re very afraid. Even people I have known for my life, known for several decades, my friends. We no longer can meet because I became so toxic.”
“For there to be a schism people need to stop being afraid,” Albats said. “Where should these guys even meet? The phones are tapped, the flats are tapped.”
Oreshkin, the political scientist, said the risks for any party to move against Putin was simply too high.
“This whole system is built around a vozdh, a leader. If you get rid of Putin you have to be able to deliver quick results, but everyone knows that is not possible right now.”
On the other extreme, Kadyrov and Prigozhin’s macho personas appear to have filtered into the Kremlin. One person who knows Sergei Kiriyenko, a presidential administration figure who had been tasked with managing politics in the occupied territories, said his decision to dress in fatigues and visit the region was probably inspired by them: “In the time of the freaks, you have to dress up as one too,” he said.
Valery Fyodorov, head of the state-run WCIOM polling centre, said that Prigozhin is still largely unknown, and until a video of him at a prison surfaced last month, he was a “man without a face”.
But Kadyrov polls well even among Russians, he said. “He says the right things … He presents himself as a foot-soldier soldier of Putin. And that’s how people view him … he doesn’t position himself like a Chechen fighter, but like a Russian one.”
And in a time when Russian military officials are seen as dithering and duplicitous, a swaggering ex-con with his own private army may be dangerous.
“Prigozhin spoke with a lot of confidence,” said Ivan, an inmate at the penal colony No 8 in the Tambov region. “We all listened when he spoke, and trust me that is not easy to shut up a good [number] of prisoners. He is one of us in the end, a former inmate. I think many who signed up did so because they trust Progzhin. They don’t trust the authorities, but they believe Prigozhin when he tells them that they will be let free.”