In his war in Ukraine, which has been fraught with defeats, Kremlin chief Putin is now using Russia’s highest-ranking officer Gerasimov as direct commander. The new authority is unlikely to guarantee any more combat successes, but rather to heat up the power struggle in the troops.
After almost a year of war and many defeats in Ukraine, Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin is once again relying on a new command authority. Now the chief of staff, Valeri Gerasimov, who has repeatedly been publicly scolded by Russian agitators and military bloggers for the failures, is supposed to bring about progress in the war of aggression to occupy Ukrainian territories. To this end, Putin demonstratively put the 67-year-old in front of the commander Sergei Surovikin, who is valued by hardliners. Above all, the decision is likely to exacerbate the power struggle in the Russian troops.
The Surovikin, who was only appointed in October, has not yet gained any territory in Ukraine – and is now only one of Gerasimov’s three deputies. Hailed as “General Armageddon,” Surovikin is primarily responsible for the bombing of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, which resulted in power outages and heating in millions of homes. Surovikin wanted to plunge the country into cold and darkness and thus trigger a new mass exodus to the West among Ukrainians. But there are no gains in territory that are important for Putin.
Surovikin has long been the favorite of the self-proclaimed rigorous forces in Putin’s war – above all Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the paramilitary organization Wagner, and Ramzan Kadyrov, who commands his own troops as head of the Russian republic of Chechnya in the North Caucasus. The two had repeatedly criticized the military leadership.
Some of the criticism from the Wagner people also hit Gerasimov personally, directly and in public. In their quest for influence, they accused Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of being responsible for errors during the campaign, for lack of ammunition, supplies and equipment for the soldiers.
The fact that Putin, who also allowed his confidante Prigozhin to get away with recruiting convicted criminals in prisons, is now strengthening the military leadership to the outside world is being received as a real surprise at home and abroad. After all, since the beginning of the war on February 24, 2022, Gerasimov has been responsible for this invasion anyway. Rumors abounded that he had resigned, been injured, or been dismissed. Now, however, Gerasimov, who was once described by the Ukrainian commander-in-chief Valeriy Saluschnyj as the “cleverest” among the military in Moscow, sees himself on the upswing at the forefront – at least for the time being.
Putin also appointed General Alexander Lapin, who was snubbed as a “failure” by Chechnya’s ruler Kadyrov, as head of the Russian ground forces, which is also seen as strengthening the military in the fight for influence. But commentators said it was less a promotion of Lapin and more an attempt to put agitators like Kadyrov and Prigozhin in their place. For example, while Prigozhin declared the currently particularly competitive city of Soledar in the Donetsk region to be taken, the Kremlin said there was “positive dynamics” but no result yet.
For Prigozchin’s Wagner troops, taking Soledar, where, according to both sides, a particularly large number of soldiers died, would be a triumph. But the Ukrainian leadership hasn’t given up on the city yet.
Rather, Kyiv sees Putin’s reshuffle of command with Gerasimov at the helm as a helpless attempt to achieve success on the battlefield. After the mass deaths of Russian soldiers in a rocket attack in the town of Makiivka (Russian: Makeyevka) on New Year’s Eve, Kremlin chief Putin is under more pressure than ever.
The political scientist Tatyana Stanovaja sums up that with the new command structure, Putin is showing once again that he understands nothing about the military. The president was torn between Prigozhin’s Wagner troupe and Gerasismow. In their estimation, Gerasimov must have convinced Putin during a debate that the military could win the war.
For the agitators, that was “a shock”. For the previous commander Surovikin, on the other hand, it meant an “unpleasant decision”, but he stayed in the game. Putin only follows his logic and attitude towards subordinates, said Stanovaja: “Everyone is idiots, but there are no others.” He fails to recognize that the problem is not the people, but the war goals that have been set.
In Ukraine, the military leadership comments that Putin’s frequent reshuffle of commanders is proof that nothing is going according to plan in the war. The secretary of the National Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, analyzed in Kyiv that the various troops – the military, the Wagner group, Kadyrov’s units and possibly a new unit from the Russian security structures – were lost in a power struggle. Therefore, the next two to three months will be crucial in the war, Danilov said.
The US Institute for War Studies (ISW) does not expect Gerasimov to live up to Putin’s “unrealistic expectations” of a full conquest of Ukraine’s four annexed regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson. The senior officer only oversees the “disorganized command structure.” And Putin’s appointment by Gerasimov confirms the leading role of the military in the war, the think tank analyzed. The long-humiliated but powerful Russian military leadership could easily have posed a threat to Putin himself. Now, however, by strengthening Gerasimov, she will hardly resist Putin.