Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing domestic criticism for his war. Image: Twitter

It does not matter what war you are talking about, but there always have been, and still are, fights between generals in wartime, and efforts by politicians to overrule advice from their military leaders. 

One only needs to recall George Washington who did not trust his general Charles Lee, and after the Lee failed in the Battle of Monmouth, Lee was court-martialed in 1782.

Lincoln also had lots of problems with his generals who either kept losing battles or not did not pursue the enemy after winning. This handed another Lee, Robert E, incredible opportunities to preserve his forces and aim for a political solution (but ended up in Lee’s eventual surrender at Appomattox Court House).

There were more problems with generals in World War I and World War II. Eisenhower was often in conflict with his British colleagues, particularly Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, which led him to make concessions that ended up in significant setbacks.

The Russians, too, had their share of problems but Stalin and his enforcers were able to keep them in line, if they survived. Before the war, Stalin had some of his best military men arrested and shot – even Marshal Georgy Zhukov was sent to a gulag and was only rehabilitated at the last minute because the Soviets were losing the war.

It should, therefore, occasion little surprise that similar infighting is going on in the Russia of today.  The evidence is plain to see – numerous top military leaders have been cashiered, although a few have been rehabilitated, and there is an open war going on between Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of PMC Wagner, and the Russian general staff and the Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu.

Such controversies can hobble even a good fighting force, and it appears in the case of Bakhmut, something has happened that appears to be fallout from the controversy between Prigozhin and the generals.

Prigozhin’s forces are leading the fight inside Bakhmut and continue to make slow but steady progress. But the Ukrainians have managed to rotate troops fighting in the city and feed in supplies. 

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner group, speaking in Bakhmut in a video released earlier this year. Photo: Telegram channel / @concordgroup_official

Russian forces, not so much PMC Wagner, have been trying to choke off Ukraine’s supply lines to the city, mainly by sealing primary and secondary roadways and by bombing Ukrainian supply resources, particularly in Chasiv Yar, which is the primary feeder point for Ukraine’s Bakhmut forces.

Yet the Russian army, which should have positioned strong forces on the flanks protecting the city and the roadways, chose to put largely untrained and poorly equipped regular army forces (and some “volunteers”) on the flanks. These were overrun by the Ukrainians in a very strong reconnaissance in force. 

The Ukrainians used crack troops including elements of the Azov brigade, and armor, including tanks. According to what is being reported, the Russian troops were only equipped with small arms, had no armor, and had no anti-tank weapons.  The result was predictable.

This huge blunder sent Prigozhin off into a series of tirades, going so far as to accuse the “grandfather” – namely Putin – of being an a**hole, a statement he tried to walk back after he sent his blast to Russian social media outlets.

The important point is that PMC Wagner and the Russian army are estranged, and it is not so far afoot to suggest that the Russians put the poorest brigade they could find to handle the Bakhmut flanks.

The alternative argument is that the Russian army is not convinced Bakhmut is all that important and is concentrating its resources in preparation of the anticipated upcoming Ukrainian offensive. 

That is an excuse that sounds reasonable, until you realize that the Russian army rather purposefully left these green and ill-equipped troops exposed to real danger, and left PMC Wagner mostly unprotected. In other words, what the Russian army did comes close to being a crime.

Russian apologists are trying to explain away this mess. For example, so-called Simplicius the Thinker, otherwise unnamed, who writes for Substack, says all of this was somehow part of a plan to set up “crumple zones” luring the Ukrainians into a trap. If this was so, the trap would be obvious. 

But, in fact, Simplicius is a smart analyst and pro-Russian (and probably Russian himself), who this time has put out a story that lacks any semblance of credibility.

Meanwhile, Putin has a real problem on his hands. Bickering and infighting in his military operation is a good way to get your forces rolled up, and he surely knows that. But Putin is also a loyalist. 

He has been loyal to this third-rate minister of defense Shoigu, who lacks real combat capabilities and is not a strategic thinker. He is also loyal to his good friend Prigozhin, and he is using him to bail out Russian army failures on the battlefield in Ukraine while also deploying PMC Wagner forces in Syria and in Africa. 

Sergei Shoigu, left, has come under fire for his perceived lack of strategic thinking. Image: Twitter

If Putin were to give in to the Russian army general staff and fire Prigozhin, Putin would lose control of his armed forces and he could be replaced by a top general in a coup. His KGB buddies (now called the SVR) might not save him from that, and they could also just go over to the dark side. 

After all, Russia’s secret services are opportunistic and could dump Putin if the army wants him out. The role of Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Russian Defense Ministry and General Staff respectively, so far are sticking with Putin. But who knows about tomorrow?

If Putin cannot fire Prigozhin, he also can’t dump either Gerasimov or Shoigu. It is likely, therefore, that he will try and wait out the contretemps. Maybe Prigozhin will quit or get wounded; maybe the Russian army might start behaving more responsibly.  

Maybe the horse will talk.

Stephen Bryen is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and the Yorktown Institute. This article was originally published on his Substack, Weapons and Strategy. Asia Times is republishing it with permission.