Earlier this week, Russia declared that General Valery Gerasimov would take the place of General Sergei Surovikin, who had only been in charge of the war in Ukraine for three months.
Overall, though, Russia has fared better in the fight.
All five of these officers have now been fired.
There have been many reports about the different factions in the Russian Defense Ministry.
Ukrainian intelligence has said that Surovikin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner faction, get along well and that Gerasimov is in a different faction.
Earlier this week, Russia declared that General Valery Gerasimov would take the place of General Sergei Surovikin, who had only been in charge of the war in Ukraine for three months. Many observers were taken aback by the transformation. Surovikin was thought to have helped the Russian military, and Gerasimov was at least partly responsible for the disastrous first attack. However, because Gerasimov is connected to the Kremlin, he now has a second opportunity. According to Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, “they have taken someone competent and replaced him with someone incompetent, but who has been there a long time and who has proved that he is loyal.”
I spoke over the phone with Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an authority on the Russian military, about the changes at the top of the Russian leadership and the present condition of the conflict. We talked about potential causes for the latest shakeup, where the Russian war effort has and hasn’t improved, the peculiar role of the mercenary Wagner Group, and what has surprised Lee the most about the last eleven months of fighting during our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
General Surovikin, who was just demoted, has been given credit for making some progress in the last three months. What has changed—and what hasn’t—during that time?
The most important thing to happen in the past few months is that Russia started getting ready to fight at the end of September. That was when it became apparent to Russia and everyone else that they didn’t have enough men to hold the front lines after they had lost most of Kharkiv and after they had started their onslaught at Kherson. They had to take action.
Putin has held off on issuing a mobilization order. People speculated that he may act in that manner either around May’s Victory Day or during the summer. But he persisted in delaying. Putin has delayed making certain difficult decisions and instead waited until things started to slow down or go wrong before making a decision, which is one of the characteristics of Russia’s strategy.
Before Surovikin took over, the New York Times reported that unnamed Russian generals had asked to leave Kherson, but Putin said no. I took that to mean that Surovikin was effectively being told he couldn’t cross the Dnipro River when he tried to do so. It was a simple way for Russia to reinforce its lines and hold its front lines elsewhere, and it made perfect sense to do so because the Dnieper is a sizable river and a sizable barrier. Also, when Surovikin was given a promotion, Putin probably unconsciously realized that things had changed on the ground and that he had to compromise more.
The situation has significantly improved for Russia since Surovikin took over. They did retreat from Kherson’s western, or right, bank. Although he serves as a useful kind of fall guy so that the blame can be placed on him rather than the more senior leadership, that decision probably needed to be made regardless.
Overall, though, Russia has fared better in the fight. He clearly had to deal with some core issues, but Russia has been attacking civilian infrastructure. This has caused issues in Ukraine. Finally, they withdrew from Kherson’s right bank, and the front stabilized. Recently, they made some progress in solar. Who is in a better position to fight this battle of attrition is also a point of contention. Russia has mobilized, and the Wagner Group is sending prisoners into battle.
Surovikin undoubtedly entered the conflict at a challenging time because of a variety of problems, but throughout the conflict, Putin has made demands on his generals that were impractical. He kept telling the people, the officers, that they couldn’t withdraw from regions when they needed to because they didn’t have the resources. I believe that Putin imposed larger issues on his leaders. In my opinion, Surovikin has done a fair job of stabilizing the front. Now that mobilization is underway, these forces may be trained and outfitted, and once those units are deployed, Russia may eventually hold a personnel edge. I believe the short-term plan basically said, “Let’s keep our lines from collapsing.” Let’s hang onto what we have while we wait for mobilization. Then, we might succeed more or even revert to being offensive.
Gerasimov was most recognized for carrying out the first invasion strategy. Is that correct?
I’m unsure of his specific actions. He definitely had a significant impact as the head of the general staff. Before the conflict, I predicted that there would probably be an escalation. Still, I figured that if they were going to do it, Putin would have basically given the Defense Ministry his political objectives, and the general staff would have gone through the planning process and prepared a military operation. I think that Putin and the F.S.B., the main successor to the K.G.B., along with a few other very important top Kremlin officials, were mostly responsible for coming up with the idea for the operation. Because the Russian military ended up running a campaign different from how they trained, fought, and so on, it looks like they were forced to do it.
Gerasimov undoubtedly had a significant impact. In the Russian military, he is the most senior officer. I’m not so convinced, though, that we can conclude that Gerasimov’s plan was this.
So it would be too simplistic to suggest that the person who made the initial mistake is now in charge.
Yeah. The fact that Russia has lost so many top officers by this point is part of the problem. When the war started, the commanders of the four major military districts and the commander of the Russian Airborne Forces seemed to be the top leaders. All five of these officers have now been fired. Back in April, the two campaign managers for Kiev were fired.
In my opinion, they might be placing Gerasimov in charge for two reasons. The Russian military’s official position is that the top commander was given more power because the conflict has become more important. That might be the case if they decide to launch another invasion from Belarus. The alternative argument is that something is happening inside. There have been many reports about the different factions in the Russian Defense Ministry. Ukrainian intelligence has said that Surovikin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner faction, get along well and that Gerasimov is in a different faction.
Regarding a different story I was going to ask you about, that is intriguing. The Times said last week that Russian officials didn’t agree with what the Wagner Group said about the takeover of the Donetsk salt-mining village of Solar.
Yes, there has been an interesting link between Wagner and the Defense Ministry for a while. Wagner was collaborating with the GRU [Russia’s military intelligence directorate] while still in Syria. The relationship, in my opinion, developed. One Wagner soldier who served in Syria and wrote a book said that the Russian Defense Ministry didn’t like how much credit Wagner got for the country’s many battlefield victories. They then started giving them poorer equipment or less assistance.