Publicly, Russia’s military leadership is busy congratulating itself about the supposed advances made by troops in Soledar, a Ukrainian salt town. But behind the scenes, there is turmoil.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu – with the approval of President Vladimir Putin – replaced General Sergei Surovikin, who, for the past three months, has been in charge of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. General Valery Gerasimov is now leading the war, which has been raging for nearly a year.
This shakeup has led to criticism from Russian ultranationalists. It comes just one day after General Alexander Lapin was elevated to become chief of staff of the country’s ground forces. This past fall, Lapin was accused of overseeing a poor military performance in the east of Ukraine.
Putin’s game of musical chairs is causing internal strife in the Russian high command. Meanwhile, the Wagner Group – the Kremlin’s mercenary team – has been bolstered by thousands of violent Russian inmates, who have been drafted and promised pardons depending on their success.
Gerasimov, 67, is also the head of the Russian General Staff. He and Defense Minister Shoigu have shouldered the most blame for the failed planning of the war. The Kremlin expected a quick campaign, but Putin’s land, sea and air offensive – announced on February 24, 2022 – appears to have no end in sight.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense has vaguely justified the reorganization of the high command on the grounds that it is needed due to “the expansion of the scale of tasks to be solved; the need to organize a closer interaction between the different branches of the armed forces; and to improve the effectiveness of command and control of combat groups.”
Gerasimov will now serve as the head of the combined forces fighting in Ukraine. He will have General Oleg Saliukov as deputy commander-in-chief of the ground forces and Surovikin – now demoted – will act as deputy commander of the air force.
The Wagner Group is now claiming to have conquered the Ukrainian town of Soledar, in the province of Donetsk, although the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Ukrainian government assure the media that the fighting is still ongoing.
Yevgeny Prigozhin – the head of Wagner and a personal friend of Putin – has long been in conflict with Minister Shoigu, as he tries to undermine the Russian state and seize natural resources in occupied Ukrainian territory. Meanwhile, the spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry has made no mention of Wagner in recent reports: “Airborne units have blockaded Soledar to the north and south of the city. The Russian Aerospace Forces attack the enemy strongholds and the assault squads fight in the city,” was his brief comment on said battle.
Surovikin’s appointment in October as sole head of the Russian forces in Ukraine was greeted with applause by the ultranationalist wing of the Kremlin. Russian troops had just been driven out of the Kharkiv region by the Ukrainian army, and the western part of Kherson was about to fall. Surovikin was then in charge of Russian aviation – he had been a strong advocate of bombing civilians in Syria during Russia’s intervention, a strategy he would later replicate in Ukraine. In addition, he had previous experience in other conflicts: from the war in Chechnya, to the repression of protests by Soviet leadership in 1991.
With Surovikin at the helm, criticism of the high command briefly softened, although hundreds of Russian troops continued to die as Ukrainian forces repelled them. The abrupt replacement of Surovikin by Gerasimov has been a slap in the face for ultranationalist circles, as was the elevation of Lapin, who has long been attacked for allowing his forces to retreat from the front in Ukraine.
In October, sources from the Kremlin told the independent newspaper Meduza that Putin “isn’t really interested in a general gaining too much popularity from the war.” This may have had something to do with the recent shakeup of the military high command.
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