By: Mike Eckel
Three months ago, General Sergei Surovikin was tapped by the Kremlin to take the helm of the lurching Russian invasion of Ukraine, becoming the overall commander of the operation and taking over at a time when Russian forces had recently suffered one major retreat and were on the verge of a second.
Praised by nationalists and hard-line Russian critics of the military’s performance, Surovikin heralded his promotion by ordering a campaign to bomb Ukraine’s power infrastructure and plunge its population into darkness and cold. He also withdrew Russian troops from the only regional capital they had seized since the invasion, a tactical retreat that gave Ukraine a victory but also helped fortify Russian lines.
In recent weeks, Russian forces, alongside soldiers from the notorious private military company Vagner, had embarked on a blunt-force, frontal assault to capture the Donbas cities of Bakhmut and Soledar, with reports of World War I-style infantry charges that left fields carpeted with Russian corpses.
On January 11, Surovikin was demoted.
With the Russian invasion in its 11th month, and with no end in sight, President Vladimir Putin shuffled the Ukraine military command, replacing Surovikin with the longtime chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, a close ally of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Surovikin kept his rank but was made Gerasimov’s deputy, alongside two other, lesser-known top officers.
The move, which marked the fourth time Putin has rearranged the command of the war, surprised Russian and Western experts alike and stoked new questions about the Kremlin’s endgame for the largest war in Europe in nearly 80 years.
“Is it because Putin is already impatient with Surovikin’s methods and lack of successes that Putin can portray as victories to the Russian people? Perhaps,” said Mick Ryan, a former Australian Army major general and an analyst on Russian military doctrine.
“Is this more about palace politics, with the open hostility and competition between the Russian military and the Vagner Group forcing Putin’s intervention?” he said. “Or because Surovikin -- with a direct link to Putin -- was becoming more powerful relative to Gerasimov?”
All of the above, some analysts suggested, pointing to heated rivalries in circles close to Putin, in addition to impatience in the Kremlin with the lack of progress on the battlefield.
“Civilian leaders often replace military commanders when the war is not going well,” said Mark Cancian, a retired U.S. Marine colonel and now a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Think about how many generals Lincoln went through before settling on [Ulysses S.] Grant,” he said, referring to decisions by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s.
The bottom line, said Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military at the RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based think tank, is that Russia’s “most competent senior commander” was replaced with an “incompetent one,” indicating that there were multiple factors behind the reshuffle.
"This is a story that has it all: infighting, power struggles, jealousy,” Massicot said in a post to Twitter.
By all accounts, the invasion is going badly for Moscow. Western officials say Russia’s casualty toll – soldiers killed or wounded – is nearing 100,000. (Ukraine has suffered similar losses, according to Western estimates.)
On the battlefield, Russian forces failed in their initial primary objectives: to swiftly seize Kyiv, topple the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and cow the Ukrainian military into surrender. Their biggest success of the first few months was the capture of the port of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, in late May.
Even after reorganizing command structure over the summer and regrouping units in the eastern Donbas region, Russian forces failed to make major gains other than the capture of the Luhansk region cities of Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk in June.
And then came the autumn.
Ukrainian troops, bolstered by powerful new Western weaponry, stunned Russian forces, sweeping through the Kharkiv region, north and west of the Donbas, and capturing the Donetsk region rail hub of Lyman.
Amid the battlefield turmoil, the Kremlin shuffled several top generals, including one, Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin, who came under withering criticism from hard-line nationalists, including Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and Vagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, for the loss of Lyman.
In late September, Putin announced a mobilization of tens of thousands of Russian reservists and others, a move seen as an acknowledgment that Russia’s military needed more men.
On October 8, Putin tapped Surovikin, who had garnered a reputation for unsentimental brutality commanding Russia’s expeditionary force in Syria six years earlier, to be the first unified commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine. His promotion was hailed by Prigozhin and others.
Two days after his appointment, Surovikin unleashed the first of multiple barrages of missiles and drones aimed at destroying Ukraine’s energy infrastructure -- a campaign that Ukrainian and Western officials have described as terrorism.
On November 9, he ordered Russian troops to retreat to the east bank of the Dnieper River, giving Ukraine a triumphant recapture of the city of Kherson. Though criticized by hard-line hawks, the retreat was seen as a shrewd tactical maneuver by Surovikin, albeit one that Russia would have preferred to have avoided.
A decision of that symbolic importance was most likely endorsed by Putin, meaning at that point Surovikin had Putin’s trust.
Less so now, it appears.
The change is the fourth that Putin has made since the launch of the invasion on February 24. Part of the blame for Russia’s initial failures in the early months of the invasion lay in the lack of a single unified command for the operation.
In April, General Aleksandr Dvornikov became the overall commander. He was replaced two months later by Colonel General Gennady Zhidko, until Surovikin’s appointment in October. But until Surovikin’s appointment, analysts say, there was no single unified commander.
“This is not unique to Russia,” Cancian said. “Militaries that have not had recent high-level combat experience don't have a good sense about the quality of their senior leadership when faced with the novel demands of a high-intensity war.”
Before the invasion, Surovikin’s new direct superior, Gerasimov -- chief of the General Staff for more than a decade -- was viewed as a stolid, competent strategist. More important, perhaps, he’s an ally of Shoigu, whose leadership has also been derided by hawkish critics but who is a close confidant of Putin.
“Until the start of this war, Gerasimov was seen as one of the better Russian theorists of the modern era,” Ryan said. “But his reforms have not resulted in battlefield or strategic success. It is unlikely his presence on the battlefield will change things.”
Some observers said Gerasimov’s new post may be a “poisoned chalice” -- giving him command at a time when Ukraine’s increasingly well-armed forces are itching for new counteroffensives, Russian casualties are expected to spiral higher, and bad news will need to be communicated to Russia’s ultimate commander in chief, Putin.
“Gerasimov will likely preside over a disorganized command structure plagued by endemic, persistent, and self-reinforcing failures that he largely set into motion in his initial role before the invasion of Ukraine,” the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War said on January 11.
“Have Putin and…Shoigu finally put in place all the elements to set up Gerasimov as the fall guy for all of Russia’s failures in the war?” Ryan asked.
Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-allied political analyst and vocal backer of the war, argued that the shuffle would mean little operational change, and Surovikin would remain the main on-the-ground commander, while Gerasimov would remain in Moscow.
Markov also said the decision was prompted by the success of the Vagner mercenaries who played a key role in the capture of Mariupol and Syevyerodonetsk, and who are playing a major role in Bakhmut and Soledar. Those efforts been accompanied by an increasingly public presence for Prigozhin.
“The appointment of Gerasimov as commander of [Russian] forces came about due to the success of Vagner,” Markov said in a post on Telegram. “The effectiveness of Vagner soldiers in these battles turned out to be much higher than the effectiveness of regular troops.”
As of January 12, Prigozhin, Kadyrov, and other strident critics of Shoigu or the progress of the war were largely quiet, with little of the shrill commentary that helped push out other officers, like Lapin.
Adding further to the drama, experts said: a behind-the-scenes power struggle building between two political factions, with Shoigu and Gerasimov on one side and Surovikin and Prigozhin on the other.
“Putin, as an unprofessional military man and one who does not understand how to salvage the whole affair, is wavering between them,” Tatyana Stanovaya, a longtime Russian political expert, said in a post to Twitter.
The political wrangling was a major factor in the personnel shuffle, aimed at bolstering Shoigu and Gerasimov in what it said was their rivalry with Surovikin, Prigozhin, and other hawks, the Institute for the Study of War said.
“Gerasimov’s elevation is likely, in part, a political move to weaken the influence of” hawks and critics of the Defense Ministry “and a signal for Prigozhin and other actors to reduce their criticism of the ministry,” the think tank said.
Russia’s forces faced another, more recent, battlefield disaster on New Year’s Eve, when Ukrainian troops hit a village in the Donetsk region where soldiers were billeted. The predawn strike killed 89 soldiers, according to an official statement from the Russian Defense Ministry, but Ukrainian officials and some Russian military bloggers say the death toll could be in the hundreds.
Roman Svitan, a reserve Ukrainian military officer and defense commentator, agreed that the shakeup would bring no substantive change -- except that responsibility for any future defeats or withdrawals or negative news would now fall on Gerasimov’s shoulders.
“They’ve just taken [Surovikin] out of the information space,” Svitan told Current Time, adding that the general “was not demoted and he didn’t fall anywhere. It’s just a game for the public.” (KB/RFE-RL)
(Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014)