The replacement of the commander of the joint group of troops in Ukraine three months after the appointment of Sergei Surovikin to this position rather speaks of political struggle in the Russian leadership and ignorance of what to do on the battlefield, experts say.
On Wednesday, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appointed Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov as commander of the group. Surovikin, who headed it in October, was demoted to deputy commander.
But for Gerasimov, who has been heading the General Staff for more than a decade, and now will have to directly manage the campaign in Ukraine (despite the fact that he appeared in the occupied territory only once in almost 11 months of the war – and even then the Ministry of Defense did not confirm this visit), this is a kind of downgrade, says Mark Galeotti, senior fellow at the Royal United Defense Research Institute (RUSI). “Or at least the bowl with the strongest poison. Now everything depends on him, and I suspect that Putin again has unrealistic expectations,” Galeotti said.
Gerasimov’s fate “hangs in the balance,” Galeotti tweeted:
I do not think that this creates a reason for his dismissal, since the war is too important, and Putin can dismiss whom he pleases. But he [Герасимову] some kind of victory must be won, or an ignominious end to his career awaits him.
Surovikin was previously supported by the head of PMC Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov and some popular military bloggers. He was even praised for orderly withdrawal of troops from Kherson, although as a result Russia lost the only regional capital captured since the beginning of the war. At the same time, Surovikin’s campaign to intimidate the civilian population of Ukraine did not produce results. More than a dozen massive rocket and drone attacks aimed at destroying energy and civilian facilities did not force the Ukrainian leadership to make any concessions and did not undermine the morale of the population.
Some military experts see practical benefits in the appointment of Gerasimov as commander of the group. “This can speed up the military decision-making process because Surovikin could not directly issue orders to the fleet or long-range aviation and had to act through Gerasimov,” Lt. affairs. “Now all decisions will be made by Gerasimov himself.”
But at the same time, Buzhinsky still considers the appointment of the head of the General Staff as a signal to people like Kadyrov and Prigozhin to “know your place.” They are “respectable people, they make a big contribution, but they should not decide how this operation is conducted.”
Dara Massicot, senior researcher at the Rand Corporation, puts it much sharper: Moscow has changed “the most competent commander [Суровикина] to the incompetent.” If Surovikin did not make strategic mistakes, then Shoigu and Gerasimov are responsible for the failed preparation and conduct of the military operation, she believes (quoted from CNN):
This story has it all: internal strife, struggle for power, jealousy.
Experts from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) cite two reasons for the replacement of the commander:
- improve operational management before decisive military action in 2023;
- it is a political move to strengthen the position of the Ministry of Defense in the face of military bloggers and security officials, such as Prigozhin, who criticize the military for the way they operate in Ukraine.
Whatever the reasons, the Kremlin is simply “reshuffling the cards because they’re stuck and don’t know what to do,” a person close to the Russian defense ministry told the Financial Times. He compared the military leaders with the heroes of Krylov’s fable “The Quartet”: “And no matter how you sit down, friends, / Everyone is not good at musicians.” And added:
These are all old men who are under 70 and who do not know how to wage a modern war.