The Kremlin’s recent decision to demote the general in charge of its faltering war in Ukraine after only three months on the job is a sign there are “profound” leadership challenges within the most senior ranks of Russia’s military, a top Pentagon official said Wednesday.
Gen. Valery Gerasimov has been chief of the military general staff since 2012 and was one of the architects of the initial invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago. He replaced Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who was appointed to the job in October by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to bolster a stalled campaign in eastern and southern Ukraine.
“It’s kind of like a reality TV show. They can’t figure out who they want to lead the fight,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told Pentagon reporters on Wednesday.
Before he was given the top job in Ukraine, Gen. Surovikin had been in charge of Russian forces in Syria. He gained a reputation there as a harsh but effective military commander.
During his brief tour as overall commander, Gen. Surovikin shifted Russian forces into more defensible positions and moved some of their critical command and control and logistical centers further from the front to avoid devastating Ukrainian artillery and air strikes.
After an initial lightning blitz was turned back last year, Russian forces have been building obstacle barriers to slow the advance of counterattacking Ukrainian forces in the east and south. They are churning out large numbers of pyramidical concrete blocks, known as “dragon’s teeth,” to impede Ukraine’s fast-moving military vehicles.
“The Russians are really digging in. They are trying to fortify” its forward troop lines Mr. Kahl said.
After his demotion, Gen. Surovikin was assigned as one of Gen. Gerasimov’s three deputies in Ukraine, a sign, say analysts, that the Kremlin has little feel for the realities of the fighting on the ground, and values loyalty and familiarity over performance on the battlefield.
The “logic of this reshuffle” was “not immediately clear,” Pavel K. Baev, a longtime Russian military analyst and researcher with the Jamestown Foundation, wrote this week. Gen. Surovikin “was broadly perceived as a competent commander and had been praised rather than blamed for the retreat from Kherson,” the city which Russian forces last month ceded to advancing Ukrainian troops.
“In his new position,” Mr. Baev wrote in the Eurasia Daily Monitor this week, “Gerasimov is supposed to organize and lead a new large-scale offensive operation, but the chances for success in this are rather slim, while the broader political context of his appointment could signify Russia’s more determined mobilization for the war.
The latest shakeup within the top Russian military ranks doesn’t address who is in charge of the Wagner Group, the shadowy private mercenary army now operating in Ukraine whose commander has his own relationship with Mr. Putin.
“Gerasimov is the overall commander of forces but is in charge of the Wagner forces? It’s the Wagner forces that seem to be in the lead in places like Bakhmut,” Mr. Kahl said. “You’ve kind of seen the Russian military and Wagner kind of ‘go to war’ with each other on social media.”