How Russia’s New Commander in Ukraine Could Change the War

Last week, Russia announced that it was replacing General Sergei Surovikin—who had been put in charge of the war in Ukraine only three months earlier—with another general, Valery Gerasimov. The change surprised many observers. Surovikin was thought to have improved the Russian war effort, and Gerasimov was at least partially responsible for planning the disastrous

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Last week, Russia announced that it was replacing General Sergei Surovikin—who had been put in charge of the war in Ukraine only three months earlier—with another general, Valery Gerasimov. The change surprised many observers. Surovikin was thought to have improved the Russian war effort, and Gerasimov was at least partially responsible for planning the disastrous initial invasion. But Gerasimov is close to the Kremlin, and will now get another chance. “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,” Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, told the Times.

To talk about the reshuffling at the top of the Russian command, and the current state of the war, I spoke by phone with Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an expert on the Russian military. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed possible reasons for the latest shakeup, where the Russian war effort has and hasn’t improved, the strange role of the mercenary Wagner Group, and what has surprised Lee most about the past eleven months of fighting.

Surovikin, the general who was just demoted, has been credited with turning things around a little bit during the past three months. What has and hasn’t changed in that period?

The key thing in the last few months is that, at the end of September, Russia began mobilization. That was after losing most of Kharkiv, and after they’d begun their offensive at Kherson, when it became clear to Russia and to everyone else that they didn’t have sufficient manpower to hold the front lines. They had to do something.

Putin had resisted declaring mobilization. People thought he might do that on Victory Day, which is in May, or over the summer. But he kept choosing to hold off. One of the things that has characterized Russia’s strategy is procrastination, where Putin hasn’t made certain tough decisions and has waited until things started to slow down or things started to go the wrong way before making a decision.

Before Surovikin was put in charge, there was reporting from the New York Times that unnamed Russian generals had wanted to pull back from Kherson and that Putin had said no. I interpreted that as Surovikin trying to pull back across the Dnipro River, and basically being told that he wasn’t allowed to. It made perfect sense to do so because Dnipro is a large river, a large barrier, and it was an easy way for Russia to solidify its lines and to hold its front lines elsewhere. And when Surovikin was elevated, Putin probably passively accepted that the situation on the ground had changed and he had to basically relent more.

Since Surovikin has been in charge, the situation has largely improved for Russia. They did pull back from the right, or west, bank of Kherson. That decision probably needed to be made regardless, although he serves as a useful kind of fall man, where the blame can be pinned on him instead of the more senior leadership.

But, over all, the war has gone better for Russia. There are obviously some fundamental problems that he had to deal with, but Russia’s been striking civilian infrastructure. That’s been a problem for Ukraine. And, ultimately, the front mostly stabilized since they pulled back from the right bank of Kherson. They made some gains in Soledar recently. And there’s an open question of who is in a better position to fight this attritional fight—that part isn’t fully clear. Now Russia has mobilized, and the Wagner Group is throwing convicts into the fight.

Obviously, Surovikin came in at a difficult time—there are all sorts of issues—but throughout this war Putin has demanded things of his commanders that weren’t possible. They didn’t have the capabilities to do certain things, and he kept telling people, officers, that they couldn’t retreat from areas when they needed to retreat. There are broader problems that I think Putin forced upon his leaders. In my view, Surovikin has been relatively successful in stabilizing the front. Now that mobilization is occurring, they can train these units, they can equip these units, and then eventually Russia might have a manpower advantage once those units are deployed. The near-term strategy, I think, was basically: “Let’s prevent our lines from collapsing. Let’s be able to hold what we have and wait until mobilization. Then we can have more success or potentially even go back on the offensive.”

Gerasimov was known primarily for putting into effect the initial invasion plan. Is that accurate?

I’m not sure exactly what he did. I mean, obviously he played a key role as the chief of general staff. Before the war, I thought that there would likely be an escalation, but I assumed that, if they were going to do it, Putin would have provided political goals, basically, to the Defense Ministry, and that the general staff would’ve gone through the planning process and planned out a military operation. I think what in fact happened was that the concept of the operation was mostly developed by the F.S.B. [the main successor to the K.G.B.] and Putin, with a couple of very key senior officials in the Kremlin. It seems as though the plan was forced on the Russian military, because they ultimately executed a campaign that deviated from their doctrine—the way they trained, the way they fight, and so on.

Gerasimov undoubtedly played a key role. He’s the most senior officer in the Russian military. But whether we can say that this was Gerasimov’s plan—that I’m not so sure.

Right, so it’s too glib to say that the guy who messed up initially is back in charge.

Yeah. Part of the issue is that, at this point, Russia’s gone through so many senior officers. Of the five officers who seemed to be the senior commanders when the war began—the commanders of the four main military districts and the commander of the Russian Airborne Forces—all five of them have been fired. The two leaders of the Kyiv campaign were relieved back in April.

I think there are two things that might be behind why they’re putting Gerasimov in charge. The official line from the Russian military is that the conflict has become more important and so they decided to elevate the senior commander. And that potentially could be true, if they are deciding to do another invasion from Belarus. The other explanation is that there’s an internal dynamic going on. There is all this different reporting about different factions within the Russian Defense Ministry, and Ukrainian intelligence has been suggesting that Surovikin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner, have a good relationship—and that Gerasimov has a different faction.

That’s interesting in terms of another story I was going to ask you about. Last week, the Times reported that Russian spokesmen were contradicting claims made by the Wagner Group about seizing Soledar, a salt-mine town in Donetsk.

Yeah, the relationship between Wagner and the Defense Ministry has been interesting for years. Back in Syria, Wagner was working with the G.R.U. [Russia’s military-intelligence directorate]. I think that the relationship evolved. There’s one Wagner veteran who wrote a book, and who fought in Syria, who basically said the Russian Defense Ministry got upset that Wagner was getting all this credit for a lot of battlefield successes in Syria. And they started providing worse equipment or not supporting them as much.

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