PARIS: Faced with military failure, a new leader. Moscow on Wednesday chose its chief of staff to lead operations in Ukraine, a sign of Russia’s impatience and disarray in the face of a war it cannot win, according to experts.
Appointed at the end of October, the dreaded Sergei Surovikin did not last three months. He is relegated to the rank of number two, behind Valéri Guerassimov, who has been at the top of the Russian military hierarchy for ten years.
In Moscow as in the West, observers evoked Thursday the impatience of President Vladimir Putin in the face of Ukrainian resistance, the fragility of the Russian command in the grip of unrealizable demands and the promise of a next major offensive.
In Russia or elsewhere, it is extremely rare to appoint a chief of staff – Valéri Guerassimov retains this function – on a single operation. The one who coordinates, anticipates, assesses the global threat, cannot be the one who commands on the ground.
“The last time it happened was in 1941 during the Nazi invasion,” recalls a Moscow analyst on condition of anonymity.
Guerassimov, number two in the military hierarchy behind the Minister of Defense, carries the nuclear suitcase. “Is he going to take her with him” to Ukraine? he quips. For him, this appointment “violates all the existing rules” of military command. A decision that reveals that “things are not going as planned”.
Because nearly eleven months after the start of the invasion, Russia can only see its stalemate.
Currently, the cities of Bakhmout and Soledar (East), are the subject of fierce fighting. “It’s not consistent to change the head of operations in the middle of a battle,” said AFP Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean, researcher on Russia at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).
“It unbalances the whole hierarchy, from top to bottom. It can’t be a good signal.”
The Coming Offensive
The experts converge to see in this decision the sign of an acceleration of the Russian operation. An offensive has been mentioned for several months and the hypothesis of a new mobilization is not excluded, after a first in September of some 300,000 men.
“It is obvious that this reshuffle means that there are plans to extend the scale of the fighting,” says independent Russian military expert Alexander Khramchikhin, for whom the goal is to ensure effective control of the regions claimed by Russia (Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia).
For Mark Galeotti, of the British think-tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the decision is “confirmation, if it were needed, that serious offensives are to come and that Putin admits that poor coordination is a problem” .
What could General Surovikin do in less than three months? What wrongs can be attributed to him? How to justify the waltz of the leaders of a structurally ineffective army? Experts point to the impatience and opacity of the strongman of the Kremlin.
In the absence of recent military successes, Putin notes the growing denigration of the performance of his army, which summons the “eternal Russian questions: + whose fault + and + what should be done +”, summarizes on Twitter Tatiana Stanovaya, specialist in Russian elites.
But the nomination of Guerassimov does not answer it. “Everyone looks in shock: the men of Prigojine (the boss of the private paramilitary group Wagner, editor’s note), the military correspondents and the army. A large number of very informed people do not seem to understand the substance of this decision”.
Some evoke the choice to send to Ukraine a man of indisputable loyalty. But for Mark Galeotti, “if you keep naming, rotating, grilling your stars, setting unrealistic demands and arbitrarily demoting them, it won’t generate loyalty.”
The Russian Doubt
By changing military direction again, Putin will not calm the doubt that inhabits part of the Moscow elites and Russian public opinion.
Today rises “a dissatisfaction on why we did not win this war”, admits Alexandre Khramchikhine, who accuses “the bad estimates at the beginning” of the conflict. Estimates, in fact, validated by Guerassimov…
And many analysts see in this new volte-face the sign of palace intrigues. “The communication battle around Soledar shows that everyone, the army like Wagner, is trying to pull the plug and claim the credit,” said Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean.
“There is everything in this story: internal struggles, power struggles, jealousy”, slice Dara Massicot, expert of the Rand Corporation in Washington.