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Russian army reshuffle a ‘slap in the nose’ for hardliners as ‘General Armageddon’ is demoted

The i 12/01/2023 Kieron-monks
General Valeriy Gerasimov, left, has replaced 'General 'Armageddon Sergei Surovikin as commander of Russian forces in Ukraine (Photos: Reuters, AP) © Provided by The i General Valeriy Gerasimov, left, has replaced 'General 'Armageddon Sergei Surovikin as commander of Russian forces in Ukraine (Photos: Reuters, AP)

The latest reshuffle of the Russian military hierarchy is being interpreted as a blow to hardliners such as Wagner Group chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov – and a statement of intent ahead of a possible spring offensive.

The Kremlin has appointed the army’s long-serving chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov, as commander of the campaign in Ukraine, with previous commander “General Armageddon” Sergei Surovikin now his deputy along with two other stalwarts of the military establishment, General Oleg Salyukov and Colonel General Alexei Kim.

The shake-up follows the installation of Col Gen Alexander Lapin as chief of staff of Russia’s ground forces, having been removed from a senior position in October after criticism from Mr Kadyrov and Mr Prigozhin, who both lead autonomous militias and have been frequently scathing of the regular army’s campaign in Ukraine.

“This is a painful slap in the nose to Kadyrov and Prigozhin,” Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told TV Rain, an independent Russian channel now based in the Netherlands.

“Because they were the initiators of Surovikin’s promotion and Lapin’s dismissal. And Lapin has been returned to Ukrainian affairs with a promotion.”

Igor Girkin, the hawkish veteran of pro-Russian separatist struggles in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, lamented the move.

“I don’t consider General Surovikin… a genius of strategy and tactics, but in this case we are talking about a man who at least relatively has the necessary combat experience and at least is not a complete fool,” he told Russian media.

“I am sure the decisions that Mr Gerasimov will make will be in line with his mental level, which I rate extremely low.”

Social media channels of the Wagner group, which have been celebrating the mercenaries’ progress in Soledar, barely acknowledged the changes beyond a two-line report on Telegram.

The hallmarks of General Surovikin’s three-month reign were a campaign of missile attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, retreat from Kherson, and more recently the debacle at Makiivka, where dozens – or possibly hundreds – of Russian soldiers were killed in their barracks due to operational security failures.

The commander had risen to prominence in Syria, where he led the successful operation to defend the rule of President Bashar al-Assad using brutal tactics, including “dozens of unlawful air and ground strikes on hospitals, schools, and markets”, according to Human Rights Watch.

General Gerasimov, who has been widely criticised by hawks and military analysts in Russia and abroad for his management of the campaign in Ukraine, has now been given overall responsibility for it.

Dr Andras Racz, a specialist on Russian security and defence policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, predicted continuity under the new hierarchy.

“My guess is that Gerasimov will not do much operational command but will rather oversee the work of his deputies,” he said. “Surovikin… will coordinate the future strikes against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, as well as frontline operations of the Russian air force.”

Dr Racz added that there could be political as well as military considerations behind the move.

“The main question I have is whether Gerasimov’s appointment also means a disciplinary effort vis-à-vis Kadyrov and particularly Prigozhin, whose forces have been acting so far with considerable autonomy,” he said. The reshuffle could be intended to “subdue Kadyrov’s forces and the Wagner Group”.

But Dr Steven Main, founder of the Russian Military Studies Office at Cranfield University, believes the moves are strategic.

“These changes are all about improving the quality of leadership and next to nothing to do with personality,” he told i.

“The fact that Surovikin was not up to the job should have come as little surprise to those who knew his background. Gerasimov is more of a thinker and, if Russia is planning for a longer war, he will be expected to plan a more strategic, less tactical, approach to the war.”

Professor Mark Galeotti, a political scientist at University College London and author of Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine, interpreted the reshuffle as “confirmation… that there will be serious offensives coming, and that even Putin recognises that poor coordination has been an issue”.

Russia is believed to be training around 150,000 newly-mobilised troops ahead of further attacks in spring.

Russian military blogger Rybar took a more cynical view of proceedings.

“Only time will tell if what is happening means that ‘unsinkable’ Valery Gerasimov is now given to be shot on sight as a lightning rod,” Rybar posted on Telegram. “We want to believe in a miracle in the 11th month of the special operation.”


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