One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies is using dissent around the war in Ukraine to jockey for increased influence inside the Kremlin, US and European officials said, offering a rare glimpse at the brewing tension among Putin allies and how Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine is affecting the internal dynamics of the Kremlin.
“It’s a real-life ‘House of Cards,’ but in the Kremlin,” said one source familiar with US intelligence. “All stabbing each other in the back.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group paramilitary organization, has confronted Putin directly about his belief that the war in Ukraine is being mismanaged by top generals who are currently in charge, US officials tell CNN.
US intelligence officials deemed the Prigozhin meeting as significant enough to include in one of President Joe Biden’s daily briefing last month, sources said. Prigozhin’s complaints come as at least one other Kremlin official has raised similar concerns to Putin about the Russian military’s poor handling of the war in Ukraine, two sources familiar with the intelligence tell CNN.
While it’s unclear how Putin reacted to the confrontation, US intelligence officials believe it is further evidence that Prigozhin, who is not part of the Russian government, is trying to assert his influence at a time when the US is closely watching the power structures inside the Kremlin.
The Kremlin has denied that officials have criticized the management of the war.
“This information is fundamentally incorrect,” Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov told CNN. “President Putin holds meetings about the special military operation on a regular basis and all participants express different point of view in working mode.”
The Washington Post first reported the meeting between Prigozhin and Putin.
‘Opportunity to move up in station’
Prigozhin in particular has used the chaos surrounding the conflict to try to bolster his own power at the expense of the Russian defense establishment, US and Western intelligence officials said. His forces have played an increasingly prominent role on the battlefield in Ukraine, one of a number of unofficial fighting forces that Moscow has turned to resolve manpower shortages on the frontlines — forces that are also jostling with one another for influence.
The US believes Prigozhin’s complaints to Putin have centered around the Russian Defense Ministry, and his belief that Russia’s generals are bungling the operation and that more aggressive tactics should be used, the sources said.
Prigozhin has issued stinging public criticisms of the Ministry of Defense on Telegram that echo his private messages to Putin, criticizing the generals in charge of the war and backing a more aggressive approach. And he has amassed a digital following on Telegram that the Washington think tank Institute for the Study of War has argued is “increasingly challenging” Putin’s “monopolization of the state information space” — with some influential Russia military bloggers even suggesting that he replace Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Prigozhin “sees an opportunity to move up in station,” said Michael Kofman, an analyst specializing in the Russian military with the Center for Naval Analyses, and is “seeking to embarrass Shoigu in the hopes of advancing himself.”
US intelligence officials are keenly interested in determining how receptive the Russian leader has been to these criticisms of long-time insiders who previously appeared extremely secure in their positions, according to sources familiar with the matter — in part because it may give them a window into whether Putin is feeling pressured to take more drastic measures in Ukraine to regain momentum.
US and European intelligence officials have long watched Shoigu, speculating that the disastrous unfolding of Putin’s war might put him on thin ice in the Kremlin.
But intelligence officials emphasize that accurately interpreting and predicting the power machinations inside Putin’s Kremlin remains more of a murky art than a hard science.
“It is Russia — there are never ending court plots,” said one US military official.
Acute manpower shortages
As Russia has contended with ongoing and acute manpower shortages on the front, Moscow has been forced to turn to a hodgepodge of fighting forces outside of the Russian military, including not only Wagner, but Chechen fighters and territorial militias from two separatist Ukrainian provinces.
There has been a tremendous amount of infighting between those groups, sources said, making it almost impossible for Moscow to “control all these elements in a coherent way,” according to one source familiar with Western intelligence.
That dynamic has contributed to a series of high-stakes power struggles in Moscow already underway as top Russian security officials have sought to deflect blame around – or capitalize on – the disaster unfolding in Ukraine.
Wagner has emerged as among the more significant assault forces available to Russia, sources said, with their fighters often treated as disposable, according to Kofman. Like the Russian military, Prigozhin wants to preserve his best forces and as a result is recruiting fighters from Russian prisons as “cannon fodder,” according to one European intelligence official.
Prigozhin has sought to exploit Moscow’s reliance on his fighters to amass more power in Moscow — although to what end remains unclear, sources said. He has been increasingly willing to contradict Shoigu in recent weeks, according to the European intelligence official, but it remains an open question whether he wants his organization to be formally integrated into the Russian army.
Still, Prigozhin’s forces have failed to make significant advances in the Bakhmut area in Eastern Ukraine, where Wagner Group detachments have been unsuccessfully fighting since early summer to take the city.
And there are other senior Kremlin officials and many Russian oligarchs who believe the war should be ended “because Putin’s ambitions are considered unrealistic,” a senior Western intelligence official told CNN. It is unclear, though, whether they have voiced their opposition to the war to Putin directly.
“The Kremlin is walking on a tightrope,” the official said. “Mobilization is widely unpopular in Russia and all talk about ongoing and additional mobilization is prohibited in the controlled information space. Several senior officials would like the war to end because Putin’s ambitions are considered unrealistic. Same with many oligarchs.”
“At the same time, you have people like Prigozhin, [Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadyrov and certain influential military bloggers who want Moscow to go ‘all in.’”
CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.