Russia’s new commander reflects Putin’s plan to push for victory in Ukraine

Sputnik/Sergei Fadeichev/Pool via REUTERS
Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov attends an annual meeting of the Defence Ministry Board in Moscow, Russia, December 21, 2022. / FILE PHOTO

With the appointment of Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s highest-ranking military officer, as direct operational commander of the troubled war in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has doubled down on his conviction that the invasion’s objectives can be achieved without new leadership – and is now turning to a trusted confidant who will carry out his orders without question, analysts said.

“Gerasimov’s appointment is likely intended to support an intended decisive Russian military effort in 2023,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, wrote in an analysis Wednesday.

“Putin has repeatedly demonstrated he misunderstands the capabilities of Russian forces and has not abandoned his maximalist war aims in Ukraine,” the analysis said. “Putin may have appointed Gerasimov, the highest-ranking officer in the Russian military, to succeed a series of theater commanders to oversee a major offensive that Putin – likely incorrectly – believes Russian forces can accomplish in 2023.”

Other analysts said Gerasimov was potentially being set up to take the fall for further Russian failures on the battlefield. And still others speculated that Gerasimov, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, were moving to reassert control for traditional military leaders over irregular forces led by Wagner mercenary group chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin and strongman Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Gerasimov, 67, an army general and deputy defense minister, has been chief of the General Staff for more than a decade and is a Kremlin insider who had a key role in planning the war from the start. As head of the joint forces in Ukraine, he replaces Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who in just three months leading the war effort was credited with stabilizing Russia’s positions after Ukraine recaptured large swaths of territory.

Some experts said personal rivalries were in the mix. “Shoigu and Gerasimov demoted Surovikin, and put Gerasimov in charge of the operation in Ukraine, demoting their most competent senior commander and replacing him with an incompetent one,” tweeted Dara Massicot, an analyst of Russian defense issues at the Rand Corp. “This is a story that has it all: infighting, power struggles, jealousy.”

Moscow’s latest abrupt reshuffling of its top commanders, announced Wednesday by the Defense Ministry but undoubtedly approved by Putin himself, left seasoned Kremlin watchers with their heads spinning. In Russia, many war hawks were irate that Gerasimov, whom they blame for the abysmal planning that led to repeated battlefield defeats, is now directly in charge as the war drags through its 11th month.

A career officer with nearly 50 years of service, Gerasimov is a conservative and experienced field commander who joined the Soviet army in 1977 and ascended the ranks through the tank corps. Surovikin, who earned the nickname “General Armageddon” because of his use of brutal tactics as a commander in Syria, essentially has now been demoted to Gerasimov’s deputy.

Prigozhin and Kadyrov were supporters of Surovikin but had savagely criticized other Russian military commanders, including Col. Gen. Alexander Lapin, who was promoted in Wednesday’s shake-up, according to Russian media. Lapin had been removed from a senior post in a previous reshuffling as the war faltered.

Mark Galeotti, an analyst and expert on Russian security affairs, said Surovikin’s demotion revealed Putin’s tendency to associate people with problems. “He thinks that all it takes is a new person,” Galeotti said in an interview. “He thinks that this was Surovikin’s gambit, and now he has to suffer for it.”

Galeotti said Gerasimov’s appointment brings “additional political clout” to the day-to-day operational decisions but also signals an attempt to fix the Russian military’s growing factionalism. The Defense Ministry’s statement on Wednesday suggested that the reorganization was linked to an “expansion” of the operation and intended to “improve the quality . . . and effectiveness of the management of Russian forces.”

“There must be a hope that he can actually make sure that coordination with the Rosgvardia” – Russia’s national guard – “with Kadyrov’s forces and, above all, with Wagner will work better because that’s been a disastrous failure,” Galeotti said.

The leadership changes, whatever their true purpose, highlight that Putin never expected to be in such a disastrous situation. He is now nearly a year into an invasion that some Russian commentators predicted would end successfully within days, with victorious Russian troops parading through Kyiv.

Instead, there have been tens of thousands killed and wounded, and Putin was forced to announce an unpopular mobilization to conscript reinforcements. Four Ukrainian regions that Russia claims to have annexed, in violation of international law, are not fully under Moscow’s control. And Ukraine’s Western supporters are planning to send Kyiv shipments of additional and more powerful weapons.

Many pro-Russian military bloggers expressed skepticism that the reshuffling would solve the Russian army’s mounting problems, including its reliance on hastily trained, ill-equipped recruits. “The sum doesn’t change by changing the places of its parts,” a pro-war analyst who goes by the handle Rybar wrote on Telegram.

Others say Gerasimov is being set up – burdened with direct responsibility as Russia heads toward further defeats – as a potential scapegoat for Putin when the moment is right.

Although Surovikin largely avoided public criticism, he was in charge when Russia suffered several humiliating battlefield defeats, including its retreat from Kherson city, which Surovikin had predicted might be necessary when he was promoted to oversee the war.

Recently, Russia has suffered high casualties in a string of precision strikes by Ukraine, including a devastating recent attack in Makiivka that left at least 89 Russian troops dead. Some commentators blamed Russian commanders’ ineptitude for housing soldiers and storing ammunition in the same building.

Gerasimov was appointed by Putin to head Russia’s General Staff in 2012 and has been closely associated with Russia’s use of hybrid warfare, including in its 2014 invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea.

The reshuffling has highlighted growing fault lines within the command, with analysts saying Surovikin’s demotion was a pointed snub to Kadyrov and Prigozhin, whose Wagner forces have led a months-long push to take the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin on Wednesday claimed to have moved a key step closer by seizing the neighboring city of Soledar. But Ukrainian officials disputed the claim, and fierce fighting continued in and around Soledar on Thursday. Western officials have said that there is little strategic value to the fight but that Prigozhin wants a public-relations win.

“This maneuvering is a tug-of-war between Surovikin (and his sympathizers like Prigozhin) and Gerasimov,” Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya wrote on Telegram. “Putin, as a nonprofessional military man and not understanding how to save the whole thing, is wavering between them. In a couple of months Gerasimov might be removed too.”

Molly McKew, a Washington-based expert on information warfare, said the new appointments were meant to restore the balance of power.

“Putin loves to cut the legs out from under whoever is tallest at the moment, and I think this is a part of that,” McKew said in an interview. “It is a signal that these internal power struggles that everybody has been microanalyzing and that we focus on so much are under control.”

Whatever the internal machinations, one thing remains clear: The war is not going to plan. McKew said the reshuffling reflected preparation for new offensives. “I think it signals an escalation, of commitment to advancing and sustaining the war, which no one’s really been that certain of from the Russian side, because they were planning on winning so quickly,” McKew said.