The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I’ve never seen the Kremlin so rattled

Yevgeniy Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, talks to fighters in this still image taken from video released May 5. (Reuters) (Press Service Of "concord"/via REUTERS)
5 min

Anna Nemtsova is a Daily Beast correspondent and a contributing writer for the Atlantic.

A mysterious drone attack on the Kremlin. A car bombing that wounded a key advocate of the invasion of Ukraine. Four military aircraft shot down in a single day — inside Russia’s borders.

If the Ukrainians and their allies wanted to rattle the Russian leadership, it’s working.

Never, in more than two decades of covering Vladimir Putin’s regime, have I seen it in such an obvious state of chaos and disarray. These days, Kremlin-watchers don’t have to read tea leaves or decode cryptic utterances from the leadership to spot the signs of intrigue — it’s all out in the open, thanks to Putin confidant Yevgeniy Prigozhin.

In one of several recent videos, Prigozhin, founder of the mercenary army known as the Wagner Group, stood over dead Russians in a field and cursed the Russian military leadership, demanding punishment for Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as well as for Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. He blamed the two men — both close Putin associates he accused of neglecting supplies for his troops — for “tens of thousands of Wagner dead and injured.”

Putin himself has yet to comment.

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Top officials in Kyiv must have been rubbing their hands in glee. While the Kremlin is primarily to blame for its own troubles, given its obvious corruption and incompetence, the Ukrainians have been doing everything they can to undermine morale and exacerbate divisions among their enemies. A constant drumbeat of drone attacks on military bases, oil refineries and fuel depots has added to the sense of unraveling. (Officially, Kyiv does not acknowledge striking targets inside Russia. It’s also hard to determine whether some of the most mysterious attacks — such as the one on the Kremlin — were actually launched by Ukrainian forces.)

Just note how loudly and persistently the Ukrainians have been publicizing their plans for a spring counteroffensive. Good military planners don’t usually telegraph their intentions quite so openly.

But the Ukrainians have been here before. Last year, they spent weeks suggesting that they were preparing an attack somewhere in the country’s southeast — only to launch a stunningly successful offensive against Kharkiv in the north. Kyiv is doing its best to keep the Russians off balance once again.

Another Prigozhin tirade echoed that earlier disaster when he accused soldiers from the regular army of “fleeing” from the front in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, blaming the military command for “betraying the motherland.” (Meanwhile, Prigozhin himself is being accused of betrayal after a Post report revealed that he tried to trade information with Ukrainian authorities earlier in the war — for reasons that remain murky.) Moscow propagandists can’t even begin to address the stunning losses they’ve incurred since Putin launched his full-scale invasion last year. U.S. analysts recently estimated that the Russians have incurred 100,000 casualties since December alone.

No wonder Russian leaders are spooked. Earlier this month, as the country prepared to commemorate the Soviet Union’s 1945 triumph over Nazi Germany, one official made a revealing slip. Vyacheslav Gladkov, the governor of a region not far from the border with Ukraine, announced he was canceling the usual Victory Day parade — because he didn’t want “to provoke the enemy with a large number of equipment and military personnel in the city center.”

Putin’s own Victory Day celebration stood out for its subdued tone and the presence of only a single tank — a fact that gave the Ukrainians a welcome opening for mockery.

Russian political insiders are increasingly questioning the rationale for the war. Sen. Lyudmila Narusova, the widow of Putin’s political mentor Anatoly Sobchak, recently went public with her concerns.

“Nobody has explained how victory is supposed to look,” she told an interviewer. “If we think of the originally declared goals, ‘denazification’ and ‘demilitarization,’ the entire Ukrainian army must have been already destroyed by now.” Noting that Russian forces now face Ukrainian troops armed and equipped by the West, she went on: “Does that mean we are demilitarizing NATO? That goal is unattainable.”

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If Narusova does not understand Putin’s plan for victory, then no one else does, either.

The sense of confusion at the highest ranks of the Kremlin is boosting the chances that Kyiv’s counteroffensive will succeed. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a longtime Prigozhin ally, has now appeared to break with the Wagner chief, harshly criticizing his threats to withdraw from the front. As a result, the three principal Russian forces in Bakhmut — the Wagner Group, Kadyrov’s Chechen militias and the regular army — are openly feuding with each other as Ukrainian troops advance.

Meanwhile, Putin has conspicuously failed to explain to the public how his security forces failed to prevent two drones from reaching the Kremlin and neglected to thwart the car-bomb attack on a key Russian warmonger, Zakhar Prilepin.

Former Putin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov told me the Kremlin is “shaking.”

None of this, of course, guarantees that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will be a success. For the time being, though, Kyiv has every right to congratulate itself on the effectiveness of its psychological war against Putin’s regime.