Speaking of Chomsky…
For the record, if it turns out I regularly met with a notorious criminal, it’s totally your business to ask me about it.
Kreminology—the study of Russian political intrigue—has long been a challenging art in the West. Trying to divine the machinations of closed, paranoid, totalitarian regimes can often be difficult, and few weave webs as intricate as the Russians. Not to mention, inscrutable—we still don’t know why so many oligarchs have found their way out of top-story windows.
As of late, many have been trying to make sense of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group mercenaries that have featured heavily in the battle for Bakhmut. A fierce critic of Russia’s Ministry of Defense, many wonder how he’s lasted this long without finding his own top-story window. Things are certainly interesting, and even more so this weekend when he threatened to withdraw from Bakhmut—the only place Russia has advanced over the entire winter.
First, the backstory.
On Friday, Mark Sumner tracked the story of one Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, the Butcher of Mariupol, and architect of Russia’s one big legitimate military victory. As a reward, rather than grant him a larger command, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin exiled him to a desk job. And not any desk job, but the one in charge of Russian military logistics—a job anyone would be destined to fail. There was too much danger that Mizintsev could parlay his victory at Mariupol into greater status in Russian society. Putin has zero interest in potential challengers to the throne.
It’s a reason Russia lacked an overall supreme commander at the start of the Russian invasion, with each corner of Ukraine under the command of a separate general. That led to massive infighting as these officers sparred over strategy, ammunition, and supplies. Even now, with a single general supposedly in charge of the entire war effort (the front has collapsed into just eastern and southern ukraine), it’s not clear how much authority he has from both the Ministry of Defense or Putin himself. There are also indications that more “elite” units—the VDV airborne forces (or whatever is left of them) and the Naval Infantry (marines)—seem to have some degree of autonomy.
But that’s not all! The breakaway Russian puppet “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk both had their own militias. And while they’ve been formally folded into the Russian army after the supposed annexation of those regions into Russia, they appear to continue operating as they always did—as the personal militias of local warlords.
Speaking of local warlords, there is Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and his Kadyrovite militia, which played a large role in the first few stages of the war. We haven’t seen them preening on TikTok in a while; maybe they’ve been rotated out, or maybe their casualties were so harsh as to render them combat ineffective.
Putin has his own personal army, the Rosgvardia (national guard). In addition to assuaging Putin’s paranoia, their other job is crowd and population control. They were thrown into Ukraine early in the war as Putin expected Ukraine’s army to surrender, thus necessitating Rosgvardia to handle any budding urban insurgency or protest movement. Their role, like the Kadyrovites, seems to have lessened as of late. Regardless, they exist to keep Russia’s security forces divided and fighting among themselves for resources and influence.
And of course, there’s the Wagner mercenaries which have been front-and-center in the battle for Bakhmut for eight months, and the architects of Russia’s brilliant (I’m being sarcastic) new strategy of cannon fodder human-wave attacks: They send a first wave of 8-10 on a suicide mission carrying a load of extra ammunition. When they’re gunned down, they send another 8-10 men, whose job is to get to where that ammo is and dig in. Look, they captured 10 meters! Then they repeat the same process, again, and again, and again. Usually they get artillery support to try and soften Ukrainian positions, but often they don’t. Just wave after wave.
If you think I’m exaggerating, Prigozhin announced yesterday that Wagner had advanced 100-150 meters in Bakhmut, and lost 94 men doing so. At the high end of that estimate, 150 meters is 492 feet, or 5.2 feet per dead mercenary. If you laid all those dead Wagnerites end on end, it would be longer than the territory they advanced. As a strategy, it might be enough to meet Putin’s new deadline of May 8 to capture the whole city so they can brag about it at their May 9 Victory Day parades. But that’s not a sustainable strategy to win a war.
So Russia, through Wagner, has captured 80-90% of Bakhmut, but at horrific cost. And it’s all pointless because having exhausted themselves over Ukraine’s 58th largest city, taking eight months to move a handful of kilometers, there doesn’t seem to be much left in the tank for further advances.
In Mark’s Friday piece, he noted that Mizintsev, the Russian general rewarded for Mariupol by being placed in charge of logistics, was replaced by a Rosgvardia officer. And as a pretext, they used a report by a Wagner officer that claimed that front-line units were not getting the necessary supplies. In other words, Wagner teamed up with Putin’s personal army to further sideline a Ministry of Defense official.
Of course, it absolutely is possible that Wagner is getting starved of ammunition and supplies. I noted a month ago that it seemed that Russia’s army, holding the flanks north and south of Bakhmut, were purposefully leaving supply lines open so Ukrainian defenders could continue inflicting casualties on advancing Wagnerites. This is the beauty of Putin’s “divide them so they can’t team up against me” strategy—it’s a great strategy for regime preservation, but terrible strategy to accomplish a major undertaking like conquering a well-defended, well-supplied neighbor.
And as the pressure for success mounts, the tension between these rival factions builds. "Today, there are already three and a half [Russian] armies [in Ukraine],” said Oleksii Danilov, Secretary of the Security and Defence Council of Ukraine. “And it's only a matter of time before they start to clash between themselves."
After months of whining about “shell hunger,” Wagner owner Prigozhin has shifted tactics. If he doesn’t start getting ammunition immediately, he is threatening, he’ll pull Wagner entirely out of Bakhmut.
Sergei Shoigu is Russia’s Minister of Defense, who somehow hasn’t yet been lined up against a wall and executed for Russia’s rank failures.
The deadline was April 28, though he says in the video he didn’t send the letter, so it would be April 29. That was yesterday. In a separate video, Prigozhin declared that “Russia is on the brink of catastrophe,” and reiterated the threat that "If the shortage [of ammunition] does not stop … part of the units we will be forced to withdraw from this territory, and then everything else will collapse,"
The deadline has passed. There is no news of any “organized” Wagner retreat from Bakhmut. Maybe he got some extra ammo or assurances from the new Rozgvardia general in charge of logistics? Maybe Putin told him to STFU. Maybe it was all a bluff, or political theater as Prigozhin has alternately claimed he will run for office in Russia or even be a future president of (a Russian-occupied) Ukraine. Making these kinds of threats is certainly newsworthy and attention grabbing!
But wouldn’t it be something if he wasn’t bluffing? If he retreated from Bakhmut in a fit of pique, thus invalidating Putin’s desperately needed victory and erasing eight months of Russian sacrifice?
Some people claim that a Wagner retreat would leave defense minister Shoigu with the blame, Prigozhin’s knife lodged deep in his back. But doesn’t that seem backward? As much as Prigozhin might blame Shoigu for a lack of ammunition, there’s a difference between failing to advance, and taking his ball and going home. Prigozhin may very well need to preserve what’s left of his forces to protect him from an untimely appointment with a top-level window.
But this is why Kreminology has always been an art, not a science. Because logic isn’t always a motivating factor, and we only publicly see what people want us to publicly see. Who the hell knows what’s going on behind the scenes.
Russian propaganda loves their stories of NATO generals bunkered hundreds of feet deep inside Ukraine. Why would NATO generals need to go into Ukraine, when they have these things called “radios” and “telephones” to communicate? Who knows. But at least those NATO generals are adjusting. Last month’s deadly strike against a NATO bunker, it was only 300 ft deep. NATO will keep digging deeper and deeper bunkers until they’re finally safe from imaginary Russian super weapons!
Few countries have the weapons stockpiles and manufacturing capacity to keep up with wartime consumption than South Korea, given its perpetual standoff with the lunatics running North Korea. While sympathetic with Ukraine’s plight, South Korea has refused to provide lethal aid, as it is prohibited under their law. They did “lend” 500,000 155mm artillery shells to the United States, in a wink-wink transaction allowing the U.S. to then send 500,000 shells from its own stockpiles to Ukraine.
However, Russia’s continued brutality is nudging South Korea in the right direction.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said on Friday it was necessary to ensure Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does not succeed and that Seoul was considering its options when it came to lethal aid to Kyiv [...]
Yoon told Reuters in an interview last week before leaving for the United States that Seoul might extend its support for Ukraine beyond humanitarian and economic aid if it comes under a large-scale civilian attack, signaling a shift in his stance against arming Ukraine for the first time.
Alright, enough “considering.” Given its significant military resources, South Korea could make an immediate and material effect on the outcome of the war.