Putin’s reorganization of Ukraine’s military command reflects a power struggle

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) toasts holding a glass of vodka with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who is now in charge of the military campaign in Ukraine, back in 2016.

Mikhail Svetlov Getty Images News | Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest reshuffle of the top brass in charge of operations in Ukraine reflects a deepening power struggle between Moscow’s military control and its domestic detractors, analysts say. to say

One of the most prominent and powerful critics of Moscow’s strategy in Ukraine is Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group – a private military company fighting in Ukraine. Prigozhin has blamed defense commanders for a series of defeats and humiliating retreats during the war.

His criticism appeared to be having an effect when General Sergei Surovikin was appointed in October as the battle commander for Russian troops in Ukraine. Prigozhin praised the designation and described Surovikin – nicknamed “General Armageddon – as “the most capable commander in the Russian army.”

Surovikin later oversaw a massive aerial bombardment of Ukraine, damaging much of its energy infrastructure at the start of winter. He also had the unenviable task of recommending (in what appeared to be a dance-off meeting on Russian television) to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that Russian troops should withdraw from part of Kherson in southern Ukraine in November – a neutral move approved by Prigozhin.

Surovikin’s mandate ended just three months later. With few territorial gains to be seen in Ukraine, the commander Gen. Valery Gerasimov was replaced on Wednesday and named his deputy, the Russian defense ministry said. Gerasimov is a Putin loyalist and was Russia’s highest-ranking uniformed officer in his previous role as head of the Russian armed forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) speaks with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (R) and Commander-in-Chief General Valery Gerasimov (L) after a meeting of the Board of the Russian Defense Ministry on December 21, 2022.

Mikhail Klimentiev | Afp | Getty Images

Analysts say the other could point to Moscow’s shifting mood toward Prigozhin and the Wagner Group, as well as Putin’s dissatisfaction with the lack of tactical advances in the Moscow-style “special military operation.” in Ukraine.

Long-time Putin ally and ally Prigozhin has been more vocal during the war and his 50,000-strong private military company – which also recruits from Russian prisons – has thrived on the battlefield. Nevertheless, Prigozhin’s criticism of Russia’s military leaders and frequent boasting of the Wagner Group’s victories have increased in Moscow.

On Tuesday, Prigozhin said his military company alone had taken control of Soledar in Donetsk, a key target and site of intense conflict for months. The Kremlin was far more cautious about declaring victory, however, and Russia’s Defense Ministry said its elite air forces had surrounded Soledar from the north and south while fighting continued in central the town

Power struggle

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War said Gerasimov’s promotion, and the wider control review, were likely to seek to consolidate “traditional power structures” such as Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) in the face of challenges from Prigozhin and “siloviki ” others – or “hardliners” – who have been critical of Moscow’s military strategy in Ukraine.

“Gerasimov’s appointment as theater commander is likely to advance two Kremlin efforts: an effort to improve Russia’s command and control for a decisive military effort in 2023, and a political move to strengthen Russia’s MoD against challenges from bloggers of Russia and siloviki, such as Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has criticized the Kremlin’s conduct of the war,” analysts at the ISW said in an assessment Wednesday night.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and close friend of Vladimir Putin, recently admitted that he created the Wagner Group, a private arms company that fought in Ukraine, in 2014.

Mikhail Svetlov Getty Images

“The promotion of Gerasimov and the Russian MoD over Surovikin, the favorite of Prigozhin and the siloviki In addition, it is very likely that it was partly a political decision to reaffirm the primacy of the Russian MoD in the power struggle within Russia,” they said. at the MoD.”

“Prigozhin has relentlessly promoted the Wagner group at the expense of the reputation of the Russian MoD and could double down on his clever ads on Russian social media and state-linked outlets to prove how high are his forces,” concluded the ISW.

Poisonous chalice

The UK Ministry of Defense also commented on the reshuffle on Wednesday, saying it was a sign of “the growing seriousness of the situation facing Russia, and a clear recognition that the campaign is falling short of Russia’s strategic goals.”

He said the move was likely to be greeted with “deep displeasure” by many of Russia’s ultra-nationalist blogger community and the military, “which have increasingly blamed Gerasimov for the poor performance of the war.”

“In contrast, Surovikin has been widely praised by this community for promoting a more rational approach. As deputy chief now, he has the authority and influence almost certainly greatly reduced.”

Sergei Surovikin, former commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, seen here in 2021.

Mikhail Metzel | Afp | Getty Images

Surovikin might benefit from not being in charge, according to political scientist Mark Galeotti, who said Gerasimov was receiving “the most poisoned of chalices”.

“For Gerasimov … it is a kind of movement, or at least the greatest poison of the chalice. .

“It has been very clear that there will be an offensive in the spring … There may be progress, but nothing is certain (and the Ukrainians themselves will be looking at a spring offensive). In many ways, I don’t think there is a Moscow strategy. at least it depends on the influence of the nursery – it is more about politics. In other words, showing the West that Russia is here for the long haul, and hopefully we will lose the will and unity to continue supporting Kyiv,” he said.

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