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12 January 2023

Valery Gerasimov may not be able to stem Russia’s losses

Vladimir Putin shuffling around the military’s top brass won’t significantly alter the reality of Russia’s war. 

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – When Sergei Surovikin was appointed to lead the Russian invasion of Ukraine in October, the general was tasked with improving president Vladimir Putin’s flailing war effort.

Instead, since then, Russian forces have lost control of Kherson, the only regional capital captured since the beginning of the invasion in February 2022. A huge conscription drive has failed to stem the losses, as many draftees were not provided with basic equipment and complained of significant losses on the battlefield. A campaign of strikes against civilian infrastructure caused misery for millions of Ukrainians throughout the winter months but has so far not provided Russia with much of an advantage on the battlefield.

The decision to replace Surovikin may have been made after the devastating Ukrainian strike on a barracks in the Russian-held city of Marivka. Dozens or hundreds of Russian soldiers were killed on New Year’s Day – depending on whether you believe the Ukrainian or the Russian death toll – making it the single greatest loss of soldiers’ lives since the start of the war.

Now, the man the Russian army has described as “General Armageddon” – although evidence of this nickname being coined before he was appointed in October is scant – has been demoted in favour of Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s general staff and deputy defence minister. Gerasimov will take over overall control of the war effort, while Surovikin will be made his deputy.

Surovikin’s task of reversing the Russian army’s struggles was always a difficult assignment. A new person in charge of the war effort was not going to alter the fundamental realities of the Russian armed forces. The army is corrupt and overly bureaucratic, its troops underequipped, reliant on irregular forces such as prisoners fighting for the Wagner group, the private military company led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, which is renowned for its brutality. Surovikin also inherited control of an incompetent army which had already been routed in the Kharkiv region in September. 

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Surovikin was unable to change any of those realities. Gerasimov, now the fourth person to be appointed to lead the war effort, will face many of the same challenges as his predecessors. Pro-war bloggers, who have tracked the progress of the conflict from the beginning, are not optimistic: “The sum doesn’t change by changing the places of its parts: this is the only thing that can be said about Gerasimov’s appointment,” wrote Rybar, a popular channel on the Telegram messaging app.

Putin shuffling around the military’s top brass won’t significantly alter the reality of Russia’s war. 

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[See also: The Putin backlash]

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