A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 10, 2023

Why Russia's Incompetent Top General Is Ukraine's Greatest Military Asset

General Valery Gerasimov is chief of the Russian General Staff and commander of the special military operation in Ukraine.

His compounding failures in those roles have made him Ukraine's greatest military asset. His leadership and decision-making have been so ineffective - even disastrous - it would not be surprising if the Ukrainians have a team dedicated to assuring his continuance in command. That he remains in charge despite his record is a testament to his unswerving loyalty to Putin. And of crucial strategic importance to Ukraine, given his performance. JL

Mick Ryan reports in War In the Future:

In authoritarian regimes, competent soldiers are less important than loyal ones. General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and commander of the Russian special military operation in Ukraine is a four time failure. His first failure was the plan for the invasion of Ukraine. His second was the shambolic mobilization in September 2022. His third has been the (performance) of the Russian army in Ukraine. His fourth was the January 2023 offensive. Gerasimov, unimaginative and ineffective, has demonstrated a great talent for strategic mistakes. For their coming offensive, the Ukrainians will be doing everything possible to ensure Gerasimov stays in command.

In warfare, an important target is often the enemy commander and the headquarters that assists them to plan and execute military operations. 

By killing a senior military leader, planning and decision-making can be slowed down. This can lead to a breakdown in the cohesion of a large military force, allowing friendly forces to attack it piecemeal or exploit tactical opportunities while it is unable to respond effectively.

The Chinese call this systems destruction warfare. It is an extraordinarily effective approach if planned and coordinated well, particularly given the reliance on communications, sensors and AI-based decision-support tools by modern militaries.

However, for their coming offensive, the Ukrainians are likely to avoid targeting one Russian commander in particular. This specific senior Russian officer has been unimaginative and ineffective since the beginning of the war, so much so that it almost seems he is working for the other side at times.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov stand together.
Valery Gerasimov and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu would have played key roles in the planning and approval of the Ukraine strategy.()

A list of failures

This individual is General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and the overall commander of the Russian special military operation in Ukraine.

So far in this war, Gerasimov has been a four-time loser.

1. The invasion plan

His first failure was the original plan for the invasion of Ukraine.

Based on assumptions that the Ukrainians could not put up an effective defence, that the Ukrainian government would flee and that the West would not intervene, it planned on taking over Ukraine in 10 days or less.

But the Ukrainians had other ideas, and the Russian forces appeared uncoordinated and chaotic in their inability to achieve their original strategy.

As the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Gerasimov and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu would have played a key role in the planning and approval of this plan.

2. The early weeks of war were a shambles

Gerasimov's second failure was the shambolic initial weeks of the Russian mobilisation that was announced by President Vladimir Putin in September 2022.

Not only should Gerasimov have anticipated such a move once it was clear the war was not going well (that is his job), but it also appeared that the military commenced its mobilisation efforts from a standing start after Putin's announcement.

The old Soviet-era army had extensive mobilisation plans and processes for the rapid expansion of the ground forces. Gerasimov, a product of this era, appears to have forgotten the need for the infrastructure, training cadres and reserve equipment for such mobilisation efforts. This is largely due to a third failure.

3. Russia lost capacity for rapid expansion

Gerasimov's third failure, which had a major influence on mobilisation failures as well as the Russian Army's operational challenges, was the decade-long program of transformation overseen by Gerasimov and Shoigu.

Commenced in 2012 and designed to professionalise the Russian military, modernise its equipment and bring it to a higher state of readiness, this program removed much of the old Soviet architecture for mobilisation.

This was no accident; it was a deliberate design choice. And while this transformation was lauded by many in the West for its innovation, the reality is it removed the capacity for rapid expansion. And as Ukraine has shown, the Gerasimov reforms have failed to build the kind of modern, integrated and well-led military institution that is essential to success in contemporary war.

4. Failed offensives

To round out his abysmal recent record, General Gerasimov assumed command of the Russian forces in Ukraine and launched a widescale offensive in January this year. A series of thrusts were conducted on five main axes of advance from the Kreminna region, and all the way south through Bakhmut, Avidivka, Donetsk and Vuhledar. 

The Russian military has experienced very limited success with these offensives, and even lost ground in the past monthAccording to US intelligence sources, the Russians have lost more than 100,000 soldiers since December 2022, including 20,000 killed. They have also lost so much equipment that tanks from the 1950s are being issued to Russian units in Ukraine.


So why is Putin standing by Gerasimov?

Given this record of poor performance, one would think that Gerasimov's days might be numbered.

The reality, however, is that Putin is likely to keep him in his position for the time being. Not only is Gerasimov adept at palace politics in the Kremlin, but he is very loyal to Putin.

As Russian expert Dara Massicot noted when Gerasimov replaced previous commander Sergey Surovikin in January this year: "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."

In authoritarian regimes, competent soldiers are less important than loyal ones. And, as Gerasimov may find out in the future, they also make excellent scapegoats for tyrants wishing to save their own skin.

Flower placed on top of burnt Russian tank on display.
Russia has experienced heavy losses during the war but loyalty in military leaders is valued more highly than competence.  ()

What will happen next?

What does Gerasimov's performance augur for the months ahead? Ukrainian offensives are widely expected to be launched in the coming weeks, or even the coming days.

The limp and ineffective offensives launched by Gerasimov this year have consumed large amounts of ammunition and equipment in addition to the number of soldiers killed and wounded.

This will constrain Gerasimov's ability to effectively respond to the coming Ukrainian offensives. Regardless of the number of obstacles his forces construct to slow down the Ukrainians, the Russians have a massive front line to defend. It is a task that would challenge the very best of armies, and the Russians can hardly be described as that.

There is an old saying: "When your enemy is making mistakes, don't get in their way."

In this war so far, Gerasimov has demonstrated a great talent for strategic mistakes. Therefore, the Ukrainians will not only avoid targeting Gerasimov, but they will also probably be doing everything possible to ensure Gerasimov stays in command.

Because given his track record, and the forthcoming Ukrainian offensives, Gerasimov is very likely in the coming months to transition from a four-time loser to a five-time loser.


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