April 25, 2023 - 10:15am

Factionalism and infighting are currently rife in Russia’s sprawling military network. This was clearly shown in a Telegram post late last week from the leader of Rusich — a prominent neo-Nazi paramilitary formation with ties to the Wagner Group — stating:

We who are involved in the Special Military Operation are not fighting against Nazism or fascism (Which is almost non-existent on the other side, though there are proper elements of Russophobia). We are fighting for the living space of our northern people.
- Rusich

As has been noted elsewhere, the sanctioned participation of a neo-Nazi paramilitary formation fighting on behalf of the Russian state somewhat undermines the narrative that Putin is “fighting fascism in Ukraine”. But this statement goes further, explicitly rejecting the President’s stated war aims, with its final sentence inspired by the concept of Lebensraum — or “living space” — a core element of Nazi ideology. 

The announcement also serves as one of many examples of how self-interested actors are writing new narratives around the invasion of Ukraine, and in doing so creating a clouded vision of what the Russian state wishes to achieve. Another prominent example of this factionalism is Yevgeny Prigozhin. The self-described “owner” of the Wagner Group has repeatedly suggested that the Russian Ministry of Defence is incapable of effectively leading the invasion of Ukraine due to its use of outdated tactics and ineffective methods, going so far as to accuse it of engaging in treason.

Although Prigozhin’s motivations likely stem from his desire to accrue more resources for the Wagner Group and gain influence, the effect of his comments has undoubtedly been to make Russia appear disunited. This was a concern shared by the Kremlin, prompting spokesperson Dmitry Peskov to state earlier this year that there is no infighting between the Russian MoD and the Wagner Group. This comment served not just as a sign of its displeasure with Prigozhin, but also as a warning to the Wagner chief.

Russia’s various war propagandists have played a divisive role, too. Certain figures — such as the former FSB officer and commander of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” Igor Strelkov —  have argued that the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defence are conducting the war in an incompetent manner and are looking for a cowardly way out through a settlement to end the invasion. Meanwhile, loyal Kremlin propagandists like Vladimir Solovyov have defended Russian decision-making surrounding the war, making relatively few criticisms. Solovyov has also gone as far as to condemn Strelkov’s comments as anti-patriotic and accuse him of cowardice. 

Factionalism and conflicting narratives about the war are motivated to a large degree by self-interest. But they also undermine the official Russian war machine by creating an image of disunity to the Russian public, as well as to enemies abroad. The Kremlin is increasingly struggling to keep control of the narrative.

Alec Bertina is a conflict analyst at Militant Wire.