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Russian splits

Russian splits

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Differing claims about the Russian capture of an eastern Ukrainian town tell us something about the power struggles in the Kremlin

“Now it’s not clear exactly what’s going on inside Soledar, but it seems that the Ukrainians have been pushed out, and are very much on the outskirts at the moment, but the big concern is for civilians, who are still trapped inside…”

Sky News reporters in Soledar

Russia claims that it has captured Soledar, a town in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region. 

Ukraine, on the other hand, says the fight for the town isn’t over yet.

That is the way wars go. One side claims victory and the other denies it until reality, whatever it might be, becomes undeniable.

But in this case there were different versions of Russia’s story, which sheds some light on what’s going on in the Russian military – and at the top of the Russian government.

The initial claim of victory didn’t actually come from the Russian military…

“Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin released this picture, claiming he was in the salt mines under the city, and that his private army had taken control…”

NBC News report

Yevgeny Prigozhin is a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin. 

He’s also the leader of the Wagner Group, a loose network of mercenaries that’s backed by the Russian government. It’s fought in Syria, Venezuela and several African countries too.

“Earlier the Russian mercenary group posted a video online saying that its fighters were already in town.”

Al-Jazeera news report

He boasted that “no other units took part in the storming of Soledar apart from Wagner”. But the Russian defence ministry rebuffed that claim, with its chief spokesperson saying it was the Russian Airborne Forces that secured the town.

The Wagner boss addressed these tensions directly in a statement, saying that the Russian military is “constantly trying to steal victory” from his group and that he was worried about the, quote, “internal struggle, corruption, bureaucracy and officials who want to stay in place”.

This isn’t the first time that tensions between Russia’s top military brass and the Wagner Group have been on display.

In October it was reported that Yevgeny Prigozhin had confronted Vladimir Putin over the mismanagement of the war and also publicly criticised Russian generals.

“And tonight after its previous military setbacks, Russia announced that the head of Russian forces in Ukraine will be replaced – after just three months on the job.”

NBC News report

There have been other tensions, too. 

After Yevgeny Prigozhin specifically criticised Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, Gerasimov was put in charge of the Russian campaign in Ukraine. The move was seen as a rebuke to Prigozhin and his mercenaries.

Yevgeny Prigozhin has used the war to boost his own public profile. He finally claimed responsibility for the Wagner group in the autumn and has since advocated for more hardline tactics in Ukraine. The exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky thinks he’s readying himself for life after Vladimir Putin, who has come under increasing pressure at home. There’s speculation that his long stint in power could soon be coming to an end.

And that helps explain why Soledar matters. The town isn’t of any kind of strategic importance, but Russia hasn’t had many victories in this war and Vladimir Putin needs one.

“From our standpoint, from a Western viewpoint we would say that it’s absolutely not worth it… but from the Russian point of view, especially from Putin’s point of view, any type of victory is important now, and what he’s doing is he is finding a place where he can not only make this stand, but take it over and that is why Soledar has become so important Putin – it is a symbolic, and  perhaps pyrrhic victory, but if he does go through with it, it will be a victory that he can then tout in his propaganda organs…

Retired Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton

But one Russian victory, six months since the last one, is hardly something for Vlardimir Putin to crow about. In fact, the last time Russia took a town in Ukraine, a Ukrainian counter-offensive swept through the country, retaking swathes of land.

The best hope for Russia would be to take Bakhmut, a neighbouring town rich in natural resources, before preparing for an assault on Kramatorsk – a nearby city of strategic importance. 

But that’s a lot of big ifs.

For now, the challenge for the Russian military will be to hold on to Soledar. What happens there may determine how long Vladimir Putin himself manages to hold on to power.

This episode was written by James Wilson and mixed by Patricia Clarke.