Fighting Among Themselves – The Struggle For Soledar #2 (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #288)

In any war it is bad enough to fight the enemy, even worse is to fight among yourselves. Dissension in the ranks is a cancer that can easily spread. At its worst, this can metastasize into mutiny. There is also the chance that internal dissension turns to infighting where forces fighting on the same side begin to target each other. In the Ukraine-Russia War, mutiny and infighting are two distinct possibilities due to the low state of morale among Russian soldiers. There is good reason for this. They have been forced to fight against a highly motivated opponent while plagued by poor supplies, inedible food, careless commanders, and an alarmingly high number of casualties. The chance of internal dissension is due to increase because most Russian soldiers fighting in 2023 will be conscripts. Many of them were given little choice if they wanted to fight. Some were press ganged off the street, while others were selected because they were ethnic minorities living in rural areas. This is the Kremlin war where the poor man is made to bear the ultimate burden.

Salt in the wounds – Soledar

Winner Takes It All – More Than Bragging Rights
Some analysts believe the inherent tension in a war of choice that most Russian conscripts would gladly have chosen to avoid, might eventually manifest into an outright mutiny. There have been sporadic reports of refusals to fight among individual Russian soldiers and small units throughout the war, but nothing to the extent that it has detrimentally affected military operations. At least none that is known. While a mutiny is improbable, recent events have shown the ugly specter of infighting is not. Internal conflict reared its ugly head this past week as tension between Wagner Group mercenary forces and the Russian military went public over who should get credit for the capture of Soledar. This salt mining town in Donetsk Province is of dubious strategic value, but highly symbolic because its capture would allow the Russians to claim their first battlefield success since early July. There is more than just bragging rights at stake in what might be called the Second Battle of Soledar. This is a fight for power that goes all the way to the Kremlin’s gilded halls.

On one side is Yevgeny Prigozhin the leader of Wagner Group, who yearns to play a much bigger role in Russian politics. His mercenary forces have seized an opportunity to show they can conduct their own successful military campaigns in Ukraine. On the other side is the Russian Ministry of Defense. While success has largely eluded the Russian military, they are concerned that the Wagner Group may be gaining in power at their expense. The tensions between the two broke into the open when the Russian Defense Ministry announced they had captured Soledar. The Ukrainians soon provided a rebuttal stating that the claim was false and their troops were still holding on in the town., This was nothing new. Competing claims between the two sides over contested areas have been common, but this disagreement had another side. A senior commander in the Wagner Group, Andrei Troshev issued a statement saying, “Soledar was taken solely with the efforts of the Wagner Group fighters.” He added that “there is no need to insult the fighters by humiliating their effort.” Troshev accused the Russian Defense Ministry of taking credit for the work of Wagner Group forces.

Before battle – Soledar (Credit: Maxar Technologies)

Power & Prestige – The War Back Home
For several weeks it has been well known that Wagner Group soldiers have been doing the bulk of the fighting in what has been described as human wave attacks by Ukrainian defenders. Most of these mercenaries are prisoner-soldiers who signed up to fight in return for their freedom if they manage to survive the frontlines. It appears that the Defense Ministry was claiming credit for an operation which the Russian military played at most, a minor role. After Troshev’s comments, the Defense Ministry issued another statement saying a “heterogenous group of Russian soldiers” had captured Soledar and Wagner Group soldiers had been responsible for the street-by-street fighting. Ironically, both sides were fighting over what military analysts say is a minor victory at most. The capture of Soledar will not matter to the overall outcome of the campaign to take the nearby city of Bakhmut. Furthermore, it is still not clear whether Russian forces, either regular military or mercenaries, have complete control of Soledar.

The real importance of Soledar is that it shows the infighting among Russian elites to win favor with Putin and positioning for a post-Putin Russia. The Russian military has borne the brunt of public criticism in Russia for mismanagement of the war effort and rightfully so. Everything from planning to supplies to operations has been mismanaged. Because the military has been so inept and Russia’s casualty total so high, the Kremlin has encouraged the use of mercenary forces to achieve military objectives. This has not affected much change on the battlefield. The casualties taken by Wagner Group forces in the Battle of Soledar have been extremely high. Human wave attacks and frontal assaults are not sustainable with an estimated force of 50,000 soldiers, but for Yevgeny Prigozhin that is not the point. Prigozhin’s goal is to increase his power and prestige in Russia. Leading a Russian force to its first success in six months would be a boost to his profile domestically.

After battle – Soledar (Credit: Maxar Technologies)

Putin’s Promotion – A Test of Loyalty
Prigozhin’s day of glory will have to wait. In the same week his forces supposedly seized Soledar, Putin put Valery Gerasimov in overall command of Russian forces. This meant Sergei Surovikin, a favorite of Prigozhin and other pro-war, hard right nationalists had been demoted. He will answer to Gerasimov in the future. Gerasimov is a longtime Putin loyalist whose fingerprints were all over the Ukraine invasion plan that failed so miserably. His ascendency means that Putin has decided that the Defense Ministry will be firmly in control of leading the war effort. Prigozhin’s dreams of greater things, both on the battlefield and domestic front are deferred for now. As for Putin, he knows that only the military can organize and carry out the kind of major spring offensive he wants. Wagner Group will be relegated to a lesser role, but they are still dangerous. As much as to their own side, as to the Ukrainian forces.  

Click here for: Battle For A Place That No Longer Exists  – The Struggle For Soledar #3 (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #289)

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