Drones have exploded over the Kremlin. Russian military planes crash before reaching Ukrainian airspace. A boss of a Russian mercenary army delivers one blasphemous diatribe after another, claiming that corrupt Russian generals who “all stink of expensive perfume” are sending soldiers to their deaths.
And Ukraine’s long-awaited counter-offensive has not even begun in earnest.
It seems like bad weeks for President Vladimir V. Putin, a time when the problems that have plagued his 15-month-long war since the beginning are only getting worse: limited resources, disorganized defenses and divisions in the ranks.
Those troubles now threaten to derail what finally appeared to be a rare military success in Russia’s grip a few weeks ago: victory in the long-running, bloody battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
Russian troops, still fighting fiercely within the city limits, have withdrawn from positions on the outskirts of Bakhmut and lost two colonels fighting there, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group that has made the conquest of Bakhmut its main goal, is spewing profanities against the Russian military on social media, accusing its leadership of not adequately supplying its fighters and soldiers because they positions on Wagner’s flanks.
The spectacularly public feud between Mr Prigozhin and the Defense Ministry – and Mr Putin’s apparent inability or unwillingness to end it – has once again cast doubt on Moscow’s ability to succeed on the battlefield itself, where coordination between disparate units is critical. The Russian military has already been forced into multiple withdrawals and has been largely bogged down along its 600-mile front line since last year.
“One of the ways Putin stays in power is that he likes to have multiple factions, and he likes factions competing with each other,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “That might make sense in politics, but it’s very, very detrimental in a military operation.”
The challenge for Mr. Putin goes beyond the battlefield as he struggles to exude an air of prowess and confidence to his own audience and to Russia’s elites. A prominent Russian businessman in Moscow, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said Mr Prigozhin made the government appear “absolutely down-to-earth and brainless and idiotic – and it’s looking more and more like it is.”
But the businessman, echoing analysts in the West, said he had not seen Mr Prigozhin’s antics, or dramatic incidents such as the mysterious explosions over the Kremlin on May 3 that derailed Mr Putin’s war effort. Instead, he said, he and his colleagues are preparing for a war that could last for years, even if they don’t agree.
The dysfunction, infighting and tension, analysts said, could be misinterpreted as a signal that Putin will face political constraints in pursuing the war, while more likely to be constrained by economic challenges, militarily industrial capacity and mismanagement on the battlefield.
“There is so much fixation on looking for fractures and potential sources of instability in Russia, and it overwhelms our ability to see the sources of resilience and continuity.” said Andrew S. Weiss, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mr. Weiss noted that in Russia’s top-down, authoritarian system, the policies of the leaders do not have to be approved by the people, as would be the case in a democracy. “They have plenty of leeway to continue the criminal war,” he said.
Putin puts loyalty above all else and seems willing to put up with snipers among his war leaders as long as it doesn’t threaten him personally. Among the Russian elite, business leaders seem to have grown accustomed to the idea of years of war and have adapted supply chains – and their own consumption and travel patterns – to Western sanctions.
And among the wider public, a pervasive sense of being under siege by a powerful external enemy – a report repeated daily on state television – has given Mr Putin broad license to fight on even in the midst of adversity.
The Russian president remains confident he can outlive both Ukraine and the West, say Western officials and analysts, as well as Russians who know him. But there is no sign that Mr. Putin will win his bet anytime soon.
The recent Russian setbacks occurred when Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, traveled to Berlin, Paris and London and received renewed commitments for military aid from his European allies. His success suggests that Western support for Ukraine has more staying power than Putin thinks.
More support from Western lenders is starting to help Ukraine on the battlefield, another challenge for Moscow. Patriot missile batteries supplied by the United States provide better protection against Russian attacks in the Ukrainian capital, and long-range cruise missiles from Britain enable Ukrainian forces to attack further behind Russian lines.
Russian media also reported that four Russian planes crashed or were downed over the western Bryansk region, which borders Ukraine, on Sunday, dealing a major blow to Russian aviation forces.
No development has attracted more attention in recent days than the incendiary rhetoric of Mr Prigozhin, who pushed new boundaries by targeting Mr Putin before backing down; at one point he suggested that the Russian people could take matters into their own hands if the country’s military leadership does not change.
Part of the problem for Mr. Putin arises from disparate battlefield objectives.
Mr. Lee, the military analyst, noted that Mr. Prigozhin’s goal of taking Bakhmut above all else differs from the priorities of the Russian Defense Ministry, which must ration its resources and take into account other places along the front which may come under pressure from a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
“During this whole war,” said Mr. Lee, “there has been a unit of command problem, and it’s a problem that Putin apparently thinks is OK, but has caused some problems.” It is not clear that regular Russian military units would even come to Wagner’s aid, or vice versa, when faced with a Ukrainian attack. he said.
Mr Prigozhin has been trying to wrest control of the city since October, making Bakhmut a holy grail for both sides. He has proclaimed his private combat outfit – made up of mercenaries, veterans and convicts recruited from Russian prisons – as superior to a dying Russian army hampered by incompetent leadership.
Mr. Prigozhin attempted to take the Ukrainian city on May 9, the holiday that marked the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany during World War II. But as his troops struggled to meet the deadline, he began targeting the Russian military leadership in brash videos, accusing them of not supplying his men with enough ammunition.
The shock value of his footage has attracted attention, such as when he railed against the Russian generals in front of a pile of bloodied corpses of his fighters. So are comments about attacking the Russian military at a time when people across Russia face prosecution, fines, and prison sentences for negatively portraying the war or “discrediting” the Russian armed forces.
In a recent video, he said the problem caused by a Russian army led by people who demand nothing but blind allegiance must be addressed – “or one day the Russian people will solve it themselves.”
In another, he appeared to be aiming for Mr. Putin. Echoing a nickname for the Russian leader used by his critics, he rhetorically asked what would become of Russia if the “grandpa” who believed all was well on the battlefield turned out to be a “complete bastard.” He later suggested that he was referring to a top Russian general, not Mr Putin.
The Washington Post, citing leaked US intelligence documents, reported Sunday that the mercenary boss had offered to reveal Russian military positions at the front to Kiev if Ukraine agreed to withdraw from the Bakhmut area. Mr Prigozhin denied the report as a “hoax”, suggesting that powerful people in Russia, jealous of his force’s performance on the battlefield, may be spreading false information about him.
So far, the Kremlin has not expressed displeasure with the way Mr Prigozhin speaks and behaves, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, noting that when someone has upset Mr Putin, that displeasure usually becomes known. Mr. Prigozhin’s behavior involves significant costs and risks, she said, but the Russian leader has decided it is within acceptable limits so far.
She also dismissed the mercenary as a political threat, even though Mr. Prigozhin is making a name for himself among the Russian public. “I don’t see Prigozhin as a political problem for Putin personally,” Ms Stanovaya said.
For officials, it’s a different matter, she said.
“They all look at Prigozhin and they are all in shock,” she said. “It’s not a problem for Putin.”
Paul Sonne reported from Washington and Anton Troianovski from Berlin.