Moscow announced yesterday that the chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, had been appointed commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. Gerasimov’s appointment reasserts his and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s role in Russia’s so-called “special military operation,” but it bodes poorly for Moscow’s war effort.
The Ministry of Defense (MoD) said the previous commander, General Sergei Surovikin, who also heads the Russian Aerospace Forces, will now serve as a deputy commander under Gerasimov. General Oleg Salyukov, the commander-in-chief of Russia’s Ground Forces, and Colonel General Aleksey Kim, a deputy chief of the General Staff, will also serve as deputy commanders, the ministry said.
The day prior, Russian media reported that Colonel General Alexander Lapin had been appointed as Ground Forces chief of staff, although the Kremlin declined to confirm or deny those reports. Lapin previously led Russia’s Central Military District and “Center” grouping of forces in Ukraine but was fired in October. His removal came amid intense criticism from Ramzan Kadyrov, head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-connected businessmen who funds Russia’s Wagner military contractor group.
If those reports are true, Lapin will apparently be taking over for Kim. The latter was appointed as Ground Forces chief of staff a few months ago but has evidently received another promotion to the Russian General Staff, as the MoD statement indicates.
Russia initially had no single commander responsible for the entire operation. Instead, the heads of Russia’s eastern, western, central, and southern military districts independently commanded their respective groupings of forces, likely coordinated to some degree back in Moscow. At times, they have reportedly received orders directly from President Vladimir Putin.
Back in April, U.S. officials said Putin had tapped General Alexander Dvornikov, the then head of Russia’s Southern Military District and “Southern” grouping of forces in Ukraine, to serve as overall commander. But Dvornikov did not last long. Some analysts believe Colonel General Gennady Zhidko, who led the MoD’s Main Military-Political Directorate, succeeded him. But neither his nor Dvornikov’s appointments were officially confirmed. Moscow has also sacked a number of other, more junior commanders throughout the war.
Surovikin officially received the reins in October and was likely the operation’s first true unified commander. Why Putin decided to replace him with Gerasimov is unclear.
Surovikin’s performance thus far does not warrant demotion. On the contrary, he has brought more competent leadership to Russia’s war effort. Notably, the general apparently convinced Putin to accept a militarily prudent but politically painful withdrawal in Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast, then successfully completed that retrograde operation, which could have resulted in heavy losses if not executed well.
Since then, he has managed to stabilize Russia’s defensive lines. On New Year’s Eve, Putin appeared to signal his confidence in Surovikin by presenting him with the Order of St. George, third class.
The command shake-up may reflect internal power politics. Gerasimov and his ally Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, were previously rumored to have been sidelined and have taken heavy criticism from war hawks such as Kadyrov and Prigozhin, who have conversely praised Surovikin. By communicating directly with Surovikin and other Russian generals in Ukraine, Putin bypassed Shoigu and Gerasimov. Gerasimov’s appointment thus reasserts his and Shoigu’s place in the war effort and in Putin’s court.
Shoigu may have convinced Putin to make the change by playing to the Russian leader’s desire to resume large-scale offensive operations in Ukraine. In its press release yesterday, the MoD said Gerasimov was appointed commander because Russia needs a more senior figure to handle an “amplified range of tasks,” bolster “cooperation between services and branches of the Armed Forces,” and “improv[e] the quality of all types of maintenance and efficiency of commanding the groups of forces.”
That explanation may echo Shoigu’s own arguments to Putin — that empowering him and Gerasimov will enable them to reverse Russia’s fortunes in Ukraine.
Ironically, the move may achieve the opposite effect. Whereas Surovikin has proven himself to be a competent commander who can deliver bad news to Putin when necessary, Shoigu and Gerasimov’s track record suggests otherwise.
For Ukraine, of course, that is good news.