Amid blasts and leadership rifts, growing Russian unease over war

KYIV – With Ukraine stepping up attacks deep inside Russian-controlled territory, there were new signs on Friday of disarray and unease among Russia’s military and political leadership as they brace themselves for a looming Ukrainian offensive, for which their forces may be ill-prepared.

The latest manifestation of those tensions came from Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group.

He used what he said were the newly bloody corpses of his fighters as the backdrop for another expletive-laced rant against the top military command.

Not for the first time, he threatened to pull his fighters out of the long-embattled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut if Russia’s Ministry of Defence did not provide more ammunition.

That was just one of a series of events that contributed to a sense that the war effort, and by extension the country, was adrift, even as Russia prepares to observe the biggest military holiday of the year on Tuesday.

Two explosions rocked the Kremlin in the middle of the night on Wednesday. Russia claimed it was a failed drone attack by Ukraine.

Denying the accusation, Ukraine said Russia might have done it to try to muster domestic support for a faltering war effort. No matter the culprit, symbolically it seemed to many to signal Kremlin weakness.

That came in tandem with attacks on a number of oil storage facilities, igniting huge fires, and train derailments both near the border and well away from the battlefields, all attributed to Ukrainian drones or sabotage.

Adding to the building sense of anxiety, the head of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, accused the United States in an interview of having started the war.

He said Washington wanted to seize territory ahead of a supposed cataclysmic explosion of a volcano at Yellowstone National Park, which he said would wipe out life in North America.

“Everyone is nervous, sitting on the edge of their seats,” said Mr Clifford Kupchan, a Russia specialist and chair of the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based political risk assessment firm. “You have the most revered Russian military holiday dovetailing with the coming Ukrainian offensive and all of these explosive events.”

The holiday, Victory Day, commemorates the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany.

In the last two decades Russian President Vladimir Putin has transformed the military spectacle into a centrepiece of his rule.

That ratchets up the stakes for Moscow, Mr Kupchan said. “It is yet another cause of the high tension that we are seeing right now and the jitters on both sides,” he added.

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