February 1, 2023

A few days ago, Moscow chose a new military chief of staff to lead operations in Ukraine, a sign of Russia’s impatience and dismay in the face of a war it cannot win, according to experts.

Sergei Surovikin, who was appointed commander of the armed forces at the end of October, did not work for three months at his post. Instead, he appointed Valery Gerasimov, who has been sitting at the top of the Russian military hierarchy for ten years.

In Moscow, as in the West, observers on Thursday spoke of President Vladimir Putin’s impatience in the face of Ukrainian resistance and the fragility of the Russian leadership, which faces impossible demands and promises to start the big battle ahead.

Unprecedented

In Russia and elsewhere, it is very rare to assign a chief of staff to a single operation, since the person who coordinates and assesses the threat cannot be the same as the one who fights on the ground.

“The last time this happened was in 1941 during the Nazi invasion,” said a Moscow-based analyst who asked not to be named.

Gerasimov, second in the military hierarchy after the Minister of Defense, carries a nuclear briefcase. The analyst sarcastically remarked: “Will he take her with him” to Ukraine?

The same analyst believes the appointment “breaks every existing rule” of the military leadership and represents a decision that “things are not going as planned” because, almost 11 months after the invasion began, Russia can only see its fragility .

Currently, fierce battles are going on in the cities of Bakhmut and Solidar (east). “It is inappropriate to change the head of operations in the midst of a battle,” said Tatyana Kastoeva-Jean, a Russia researcher at the French Institute of International Relations.

This, she added, “undermines the entire hierarchy from top to bottom. That can’t be a good sign.”

Next attack

Experts agree that this decision indicates the acceleration of the Russian process. Talks about a new attack have been going on for several months, while the hypothesis of a new mobilization is not ruled out, after the first mobilization in September, in which almost 300,000 people were mobilized.

For his part, independent Russian military expert Alexander Khramchikhin said: “It is clear that this amendment means there are plans to expand the scale of fighting,” noting that the goal, in his opinion, is to ensure effective control over the areas claimed by Russia (Luhansk, Donetsk , Kherson and Zaporozhye).

Mark Galeotti of the Royal United Services Institute thinks the decision is “confirmation that major attacks are coming and that Putin is acknowledging that poor coordination is a problem.”

Putin’s obscurity

What could General Surovikin do in less than three months? What mistakes did he make? How can one justify replacing the leaders of a structurally inefficient army? Experts speak of Putin’s impatience and ambiguity.

In the absence of recent military victories, Putin notes a growing underestimation of his army’s combat capability, prompting “the eternal Russian questions: ‘Who is wrong’ and ‘What to do?

But the appointment of Gerasimov does not answer these questions. “Everyone looks in shock: (Yevgeny) Prigozhin’s guys (the head of the Wagner military group), war correspondents, the army. It seems that a large number of very knowledgeable people do not understand the essence of this decision.

Some suggest that the choice fell on a man of unconditional loyalty to be sent to Ukraine. But Mark Galeotti believes that “if you don’t stop appointing leaders, replacing them, burning them, making unrealistic demands and arbitrarily humiliating them, that loyalty will not be born.”

Russian skepticism

By changing military leadership again, Putin will not dispel the suspicions that have gripped some of Moscow’s elites and Russian public opinion.

Alexander Khramchikhin said today that “outrage over why we didn’t win this war is growing,” referring to the “bad assessments at the beginning” of the conflict… which Gerasimov supported.

Many analysts see this new change as a sign of an internal conspiracy. “The media battle around Solidar shows that everyone is trying to attribute victory to themselves,” said Tatiana Kastoeva-Zhan.

“This story has it all: internal strife, power struggles, jealousy,” sums up Dara Massicot, an expert at the Rand Corporation in Washington.

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