A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jan 12, 2023

The Reason Putin Just Removed His First Successful Ukraine Invasion Commander

In General Surovikin, Putin had finally found the brutal, effective commander he desired to subdue Ukraine. 

Surovikin launched the missile and drone attacks on Ukraine's infrastructure, similar to those he used against Syrian civilians. But those attacks have failed, and Surovikin's competence evidently threatened Putin loyalists, giving them an opening. This is part of a larger internal battle between Kremlin military loyalists and Wagner's Prigozhin, who desires to head the entire Russian military - as well as eventually replace Putin. Putin understands that so is playing then all off against each other. Which is why he has replaced the relatively effective Surovikin - a Prigozhin ally - with Gerasimov, the incompetent responsible for the Ukraine invasion's failure to begin with. As a result, military leaders in Ukraine will be toasting this latest change. JL 

Will Vernon and Laura Gozzi report in the BBC, Anatoly Kurmanaev reports in the New York Times:

General Gerasimov re-replaces Sergei Surovikin who has overseen recent brutal attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure. The move is seen as a sign that Surovikin may have gained too much power. Putin remains focused on  maintaining the power balance among key allies, rather than correcting the military’s flaws. “They have taken someone who is competent and replaced him with someone who is incompetent, but who has shown that he is loyal.” Criticism of Russian commanders has created an opportunity for Wagner's Prigozhin who angling to replace Defense Minister Shoigu, a longtime Putin confidant.

President Vladimir Putin has removed Russia's top commander in Ukraine, just three months after he was installed.

Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov will now lead what Mr Putin terms a "special military operation".

Gen Gerasimov replaces Sergei Surovikin who has overseen recent brutal attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure.

The reshuffle comes as Russians claim they are making progress in eastern Ukraine after suffering a series of military defeats in recent months.

Russia launched its invasion into Ukraine on 24 February.

Gen Gerasimov, who has been in post since 2012, is the longest-serving Russian chief of general staff of the post-Soviet era.

Gen Surovikin - now his deputy - has been dubbed "General Armageddon" for his brutal tactics in previous wars, including Russia's operations in Syria and the heavy bombardment of the city of Aleppo in particular.

Shortly after he was appointed to lead the operation in October, Russia began its campaign to destroy Ukraine's energy infrastructure, leaving millions of Ukrainian civilians without power or running water for extended periods in the depths of winter. He also oversaw Russia's withdrawal from the southern city of Kherson - a major success for the Ukrainians.

Russia's defence ministry said the decision to replace Gen Surovikin was aimed at organising "closer contact between different branches of the armed forces and improving the quality and effectiveness of the management of Russian forces".

But the move has been seen by some as a sign that he may have gained too much power.

"As the unified commander in Ukraine, Surovikin was becoming very powerful, and was likely bypassing [Russian Defence Minister Sergei] Shoigu and Gerasimov when talking to Putin," military analyst Rob Lee wrote on Twitter.

Some of Russia's hawkish military bloggers, who support the war but frequently criticise the way it is being carried out, have been highly critical of Russia's military leadership, including the new head of the special operation, Gen Gerasimov.

Wednesday's announcement comes as fighting continues in Soledar.

The fall of Soledar may help Russian troops in their assault on the strategic city of Bakhmut, about 10km (six miles) to the south-west, providing them with a secure artillery position within range of the city.

Soledar also has deep salt mines, which could be used to station troops and store equipment, protected from Ukrainian missiles.

Russia's mercenary Wagner Group has taken full credit for "storming" it.

On Tuesday night, the group's leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said his forces were in full control of Soledar. However, on Wednesday the Russian defence ministry released a statement appearing to contradict his claim - or that only Wagner group troops were involved.

This led to Mr Prigozhin repeating the claim on Wednesday evening. In a short statement on Telegram, he boasted that his mercenaries had killed around 500 pro-Ukraine troops. "The whole city is littered with the corpses of Ukrainian soldiers," he wrote.

Ukraine has recently made similar comments about piles of Russian bodies.

There is no independent confirmation.

The US-based Maxar Technologies company has published pictures of Soledar from August and early January, showing the scale of destruction during the recent fighting.

The apparent differences in Russia's official narrative surrounding the latest events around Soledar hint at divisions in the country's military leadership, particularly between the Wagner Group and the defence ministry.

Russia has replaced the general in charge of its trouble-plagued war against Ukraine, amid signs of dissension among President Vladimir V. Putin’s top allies — a shake-up that critics said would not address what ails the Russian military.

Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, whose appointment the Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday, is a longtime Kremlin ally, chief of the military general staff since 2012, and an executor of the failed plan for the initial invasion in February. It was the second time in just three months that the ministry replaced the chief of the war effort.

Outside analysts and hawkish Russian war bloggers said the change was a far cry from the radical overhaul the Russian armed forces need to become more effective.

“The sum does not change, just by changing the places of its parts,” wrote one prominent blogger who goes by the name Rybar. The reshuffling of commanders came as the Kremlin sharply contradicted a key Putin ally about the pitched combat for Soledar, a small town in eastern Ukraine.On Tuesday, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary force, said that his troops had seized control of Soledar, posted online a photo of himself with some of the soldiers in what he said was the town’s famous salt mine, and made a point of claiming that only Wagner fighters had been battling there on behalf of Russia.

But both the Russian Defense Ministry and Ukrainian commanders contradicted those claims on Wednesday, saying that combat continued in Soledar and that the town had not yet fallen. The Russian ministry also said its own troops were fighting there.

Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, urged journalists to wait for official announcements about whether the city had been captured, adding that “tactical successes are certainly very important as they come at a rather expensive price.”

Starting with the failed attempt to seize Kyiv in a lightning assault in February and March, the Russian war effort has been marked by missteps, reversals and heavy casualties.

It shifted to a slow, grinding offensive concentrating on the eastern Donbas that succeeded in capturing several cities at high cost, but then stalled. Then in late summer came a swift Ukrainian counteroffensive that reclaimed a significant amount of occupied territory, and forced a chaotic Russian retreat from the northeastern Kharkiv region.

That prompted the appointment in October of a new Russian commander for the war in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who had previously headed Russian forces in Syria, where he gained a reputation as a ruthless but effective commander.

General Surovikin revamped a disjointed military structure in Ukraine and ordered construction of defensive lines to slow Ukrainian advances. He also advocated and organized the orderly retreat from the southern city of Kherson and surrounding areas west of the Dnipro River, a move that military analysts said was necessary but that Mr. Putin was said to have previously forbidden.

Now General Surovikin has effectively been demoted, becoming one of three deputies to General Gerasimov. Analysts said the change showed that Mr. Putin remains focused on projecting stability and maintaining the power balance among key allies, rather than correcting the military’s fundamental flaws. “They have taken someone who is competent and replaced him with someone who is incompetent, but who has been there a long time and who has shown that he is loyal,” said Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation in Washington. “Whatever is happening in Moscow, it is out of touch with what is happening on the ground in Ukraine.”

In an intelligence assessment, the British Defense Ministry said the switch was “a clear acknowledgment that the campaign is falling short of Russia’s strategic goals.” But it said the move would meet with “extreme displeasure” among pro-war ultranationalists “who have increasingly blamed Gerasimov for the poor execution of the war.”

Russian setbacks slowed under General Surovikin, but did not stop. Ukrainian forces, armed with increasingly sophisticated Western weapons, made more gains in Kherson Province and in the Donbas region in the east, and repeatedly struck targets far behind the front lines. A monthslong Russian drive to capture the small city of Bakhmut, in the Donbas, has cost many lives but gained little ground.

A concerted effort destroy Ukraine’s energy systems has failed to bombard the country into submission, while leaving Russia short of precision munitions. And after Mr. Putin ordered the draft of 300,000 additional troops, new conscripts reported being thrown into the fight with minimal training and inadequate equipment. Some were killed after just days in uniform.

The most striking recent failure came on New Year’s Day, when Ukrainian artillery struck a complex housing new Russian soldiers in the Donbas city of Makiivka. The Defense Ministry acknowledged that 89 were killed, but Ukraine claimed casualties in the hundreds.

The hawkish Russian military bloggers — a major source of information on the war in a country where the Kremlin controls the media — blamed Russian commanders: They had concentrated the troops rather than spreading them out, had housed them next to an ammunition depot, and had not prevented soldiers from using cellphones, whose signals the Ukrainians apparently used to zero in on their location.

The criticism leveled at uniformed Russian commanders has created an opportunity for Mr. Prigozhin to portray himself and Wagner as indispensable to the war effort. He seems to be trying to raise his political profile within Russia, though to what end is unclear.

Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Mr. Putin who has broken ties with the president, said that Mr. Prigozhin was angling to replace Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, a longtime Putin confidant.

Wagner has become a kind of shadow army for Russia, deployed in support of the Kremlin’s military campaigns in Africa and the Middle East.

A former convicted criminal, Mr. Prigozhin became a restaurateur and befriended Mr. Putin years ago, parlaying that relationship into a varied business empire, including the Wagner Group. He has been indicted in the United States, where he is accused of orchestrating Russian online meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

This year, Mr. Prigozhin has cast off the modest profile he once tried to maintain.

After long denying any role in election meddling, he recently boasted of it. He has criticized the regular military. And, after saying for years that he had no connection to Wagner — he even questioned whether it existed — he acknowledged in September that he was its founder, and has embraced its role in Ukraine.

Mr. Prigozhin has supplemented Russia’s decimated fighting ranks with tens of thousands of prison inmates recruited to his mercenary force, awarded medals, visited military cemeteries and, according to his frequent videos, appeared unexpectedly at the toughest sections of the front line. In late December, Wagner fighters released a profanity-laden video addressed to the military high command, accusing it of withholding ammunition and causing the deaths of their comrades. Mr. Prigozhin responded to the video by saying “when you’re sitting in a warm office, the frontline problems are hard to hear,” in apparent reference to the generals.



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