Two powerful supporters of President Vladimir V. Putin turned on Russia’s military leadership on Saturday after it ordered a retreat from a key city in eastern Ukraine, a striking sign of dissent within the Russian elite that comes as the Kremlin tries to project an image of strength and unity.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, wrote on the Telegram messaging app that Russia’s top military brass had “covered for” an “incompetent” general who should now be “sent to the front to wash his shame off with blood.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the business magnate close to Mr. Putin who leads the Wagner group —an army of mercenaries fighting for Russia in the war — issued a statement an hour later declaring that he agreed with Mr. Kadyrov.
“Send all these pieces of garbage barefoot with machine guns straight to the front,” Mr. Prigozhin said in an apparent reference to Russia’s military leaders.
The Kremlin’s military leadership, including Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, a close associate of Mr. Putin, has come under increasingly withering criticism in recent months from some pro-war Russian bloggers, who view them as corrupt bureaucrats failing as military strategists. That criticism expanded after Russia’s stunning retreat in northeastern Ukraine last month.
But the fury on Saturday after Russia lost the city of Lyman, a key rail hub, was extraordinary both in its timing and the fact that it was coming not just from commentators on social media, but from senior allies of Mr. Putin.
It underscored that the retreat marked a major embarrassment for the Kremlin, coming just 24 hours after the festivities in Moscow marking the attempted annexation of four Ukrainian regions by Mr. Putin that Western officials have decried as illegal.
The city of Lyman in the Donetsk region is part of the annexed territory that Mr. Putin described in his speech on Friday as “Novorossiya,” or New Russia, casting it as part of the country’s historical heartland. The fact that his troops there pulled back just a day later shocked Russian pro-war commentators, who interpreted the retreat as a sign that their government’s grand and aggressive rhetoric did not match reality.
As news of an impending rout in Lyman circulated on social media, Yegor Kholmogorov, a nationalist pundit, wrote on Telegram that “any retreat will look like a bad omen against the backdrop of yesterday’s events in Moscow.”
After Russia confirmed the withdrawal, Yevgeny Primakov, the head of a government agency managing ties with Russians abroad, wrote on Telegram that “we have given a Russian city to the enemy” for the first time since World War II.
But it was the public criticism by Mr. Kadyrov and Mr. Prigozhin — both of whom have become influential figures in Russia’s war effort operating independently from the Defense Ministry — that carried the most significance. It suggested that Mr. Putin would now face even more pressure from the hawks in his inner circle to escalate the war.
One concern in the West is that Mr. Putin might decide to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, a possibility he has hinted at.
American officials are already gaming out scenarios should Mr. Putin decide to use a tactical nuclear weapon to make up for the recent failings of Russian troops in Ukraine — and have issued stark warnings to the Russian leader about the catastrophic consequences of such a move.
In his post on Saturday, Mr. Kadyrov became one of the first Russian public officials to openly call for the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine.
“I don’t know what the Russian Ministry of Defense reports to the commander in chief,” Mr. Kadyrov wrote. “But in my personal opinion, more drastic measures should be taken, up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons.”