A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 17, 2022

Why 4 Russian Generals Killed By Ukraine In 3 Weeks Is Not A Random Occurrence

Russia's command and control has always been top-heavy, a result of fearing the consequences of failure and of placing less importance on sergeants and lieutenants to direct small unit fighting

In Ukraine, this has meant generals moving closer to the front to figure out why attacks are stalled. But that has made them more vulnerable to a focused team of Ukrainian soldiers charged with targeting leaders. And, as the results show, those Ukrainians are succeeding. JL  

William Mauldin and colleagues report in the Wall Street Journal:

Four generals have died in three weeks on the battlefield in Ukraine, showing faults in Moscow’s ability to lead troops. The fallout could shape the outcome of the war. “They are overly dependent on senior people micromanaging from the front because they don’t have  (good) noncommissioned officers to exercise initiative.” Other factors include subpar communications and ambushes by Ukrainians. (And) a dedicated team of Ukrainian military intelligence special operations forces has been targeting Russia’s officers. The generals wanted to understand why the invasion is stalling. “They paid a price for that."

Four Russian brigadier generals have died in three weeks on the battlefield in Ukraine, Kyiv officials said, showing faults in Moscow’s ability to lead troops into battle. The fallout could shape the outcome of the war, according to Ukrainian and Western officials.

The deaths of Gen. Vitaly Gerasimov, Gen. Andrei Kolesnikov, Gen. Oleg Mityaev and Gen. Andrei Sukhovetsky were announced by Ukrainian officials and confirmed by some Russian media reports, but not the Kremlin. They were veterans of Russia’s earlier conflicts in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, where Russia also lost generals.

Grisly photos and celebratory social-media posts allow Kyiv to show some success against a larger and well-funded military.

The Russian military’s fighting style appears to have contributed to the losses, analysts say. Other factors include subpar radio communications and intense fighting, including ambushes by Ukrainian forces near cities. Replacing them with officers with similar experience could prove difficult.

“Their level of small-unit leadership, as they themselves recognize, is not great, which is why you see general officers much more forward in the field” in the Russian army, said Col. John “Buss” Barranco, a U.S. Marine Corps fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

“They are overly dependent on senior people micromanaging from the front because they don’t have the same noncommissioned officer corps to exercise initiative,” he said.

Given the limited public details about the generals’ deaths, Western officers and analysts can’t say which Ukrainian actions against Russian officers have proven most successful, or whether mistakes on the Russian side left their officers vulnerable.

The Russian officers killed in action have a rank that translates as “major general,” which equates to one-star officers, analogous to brigadier generals or simply “brigadiers” in the West.

Russian invasion

Areas no longer controlled by Ukraine as of Friday

Direction of invasion forces


Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations


Not in operation

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Nuclear facilities












Controlled by







Sea of Azov







Black Sea

200 miles

200 km

Sources: Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Russia-controlled area in eastern Ukraine); Dr. Phillip Karber, Potomac Foundation (Russian incursions, refugee crossing locations); International Atomic Energy Agency, Energoatom (nuclear facilities)
Max Rust and Emma Brown/The Wall Street Journal

Their presence in the dangerous part of the conflict is partly due to a tradition that gives these generals broad authority not only to send troops into battle but also to decide when to adjust tactics due to unforeseen circumstances when encountering the enemy, analysts say.

“The Russian military is top heavy and the officer class plays a heavier role,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who has worked in Russia. “The military has very centralized decision making so it’s not shocking that these guys are up in the front at the friction points.”

By contrast, the U.S. military relies on more junior officers, including lieutenant colonels, whose training equips them to change course during a battle, with close communication with more senior officers far from the front lines. Only one U.S. general has died in combat in decades, the victim of an attack by a disgruntled Afghan soldier.

On the other side, Ukrainian units are also encountering heavy fire from the Russian army. Russia’s Defense Ministry regularly lists the number of Ukrainian tanks and armored vehicles it says it has destroyed—now 1,353—but hasn’t touted the deaths of Ukrainian military brass.

A dedicated team of Ukrainian military intelligence special operations forces has been tasked with specifically locating and targeting Russia’s officer class, according to a person in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inner circle.

“They look for high profile generals, pilots, artillery commanders,” said the person. “They have all their details, names, army numbers,” adding that the officers were then targeted either with sniper fire or artillery.

The person said the group is using all methods at its disposal to locate the Russian officers, who have often been found using unencrypted radio equipment, with transmissions that can be intercepted or pinpointed on a map, the person said. Training, drones and antitank weapons provided by North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries have helped Ukraine disrupt the Russian advance and put senior Russian officers at risk, Western officials say.

In modern warfare, soldiers are taught to disrupt the enemy’s leadership and communications as quickly as possible.

“We were always taught to look for the command and control vehicle and hit it first, and that is the node that is linking everything else,” Col. Barranco said.

The Russians’ deaths are a “reflection of poor discipline, lack of operational experience and a lack of training,” said retired Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. He said the generals may have wanted to personally take charge of the situation or understand why the invasion is stalling. “They paid a price for that,” he said.

Another vulnerability is Russia’s use of communications equipment, former military officers and analysts said, citing publicly available information showing that Russian officers in Ukraine are relying to a large degree on mobile phones and unencrypted VHF and high-frequency radio contact rather than advanced, encrypted radios.

NATO aircraft with broad ability to detect radio transmissions have flown near Ukraine and Russia has accused Western intelligence agencies of funneling information to Kyiv to help with the war. Ukraine has its own considerable expertise dealing with Russian communications after facing Moscow in fights from Crimea to eastern Ukraine since 2014.

Even if the generals’ vehicles or nearby troops weren’t being targeted directly, the lack of effective radio communication means a Russian officer is more likely to wander into harm’s way on the battlefield, said Sam Cranny-Evans, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“He would need to be in a place where he could understand what’s going on,” Mr. Cranny-Evans said. “If that means that he has to come within reach of the Ukrainians, then that is probably more a result of the fragmented nature of the battlefield.”


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