Russia has replaced the general in command of its troubled war against Ukraine amid signs of dissension among the president’s key allies Vladimir Putin — a jolt that critics said would not address what ails the Russian military.
The general Valery Gerasimovwhose appointment was announced by the defense ministry on Wednesday, he is a longtime Kremlin ally, chief of the military staff since 2012 and executor of the failed plan for the initial February invasion.
It was the second time in just three months that the ministry replaced the head of the war effort.
Hardline Russian outside analysts and war bloggers said the change was very different from the radical overhaul that the Russian armed forces must be more effective.
“The sum doesn’t change, only the position of its parts changes,” wrote a prominent blogger who calls himself Rybar.
The leadership jolt came as the Kremlin sharply contradicted a key Putin ally over fierce fighting over Soledar, a small town in eastern Ukraine.
TuesdayYevgeny Prigozhinleader of the mercenary force Wagnersaid his troops had taken control of Soledar, posted a photo of himself online with some of the soldiers in what he said was the city’s famous salt mine, and claimed that only Wagner fighters they had fought there on behalf of Russia.
But both the Russian Defense Ministry and Ukrainian commanders contradicted those claims on Wednesday, saying fighting continued in Soledar and the city had not yet fallen.
The Russian ministry also said its own troops were fighting there.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the Kremlin, urged journalists to wait for official announcements on the possible capture of the city, adding that “tactical successes are undoubtedly very important, as they come at a rather high price”.
Neither he nor the ministry mentioned Wagner or his boss by name, but their statements amounted to aa scold Prigozhin, who on Wednesday reiterated his claim that his forces had taken control of Soledar.
Since the failed attempt to take Kiev in a lightning assault in February and March, the Russian war effort has been marred by faux passetbacks and numerous casualties.
They switched to a slow offensive, concentrated in the eastern part of the Donbasswho managed to capture several cities at great cost, but then stopped.
A rapid Ukrainian counteroffensive took place in late summer, recapturing a significant portion of occupied territory and forcing a chaotic Russian withdrawal from the northeastern Kharkiv region.
This led to the appointment in October of a new Russian commander for the war in Ukraine, general Sergey Surovikinwho previously led Russian forces in Syria, where he built a reputation as a ruthless but effective commander.
Surovikin renovated a ramshackle military facility in Ukraine and ordered the construction of defensive lines to halt the Ukrainian advance.
He also supported and organized an orderly withdrawal from the southern city of Kherson and surrounding areas west of the Dnieper River, a move military analysts believed was necessary but had reportedly previously been prohibited by Putin.
Now Surovikin actually was degraded, becoming one of three Gerasimov deputies. According to analysts, the change shows that Putin remains focused project stability and to maintain the balance of power between key allies, rather than correcting the military’s fundamental flaws.
“They took someone competent and replaced him with someone who is incompetent, but who has been there a long time and has proven loyal,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at Rand Corp. in Washington.
“Whatever happens in Moscow is out of touch with what is happening on the ground in Ukraine.”
In an intelligence assessment, the UK’s defense ministry said the change was “a clear recognition that the campaign is falling short of Russia’s strategic objectives”.
But he said the move would meet with “extreme displeasure” among pro-war ultranationalists “who have increasingly blamed Gerasimov for the war’s poor execution.”
Russian setbacks slowed down under Surovikin, but did not stop.
Ukrainian forces, armed with increasingly sophisticated Western weaponry, have made further gains in Kherson province and the eastern Donbass region, repeatedly striking targets far behind the front lines.
The month-long Russian offensive to capture the small town of Bakhmut in Donbass cost many lives but it gained little ground.
A concerted effort to destroy Ukraine’s energy systems failed to bomb the country into submission, as it left Russia out of ammo of precision.
And after Putin ordered the recruitment of 300,000 soldiers Additionally, new recruits reported being thrown into combat with minimal training and inadequate equipment.
Some died within days of putting on the uniform.
The most glaring recent failure occurred on New Year’s Day, when Ukrainian artillery struck a compound housing new Russian soldiers in the Donbas town of Makiivka.
The defense ministry acknowledged that 89 were killed, but Ukraine said there were hundreds of victims.
Hardline Russian military bloggers – a major source of information about the war in a country where the Kremlin controls the media – accused Russian commanders:
They had concentrated the troops instead of dispersing them; they had been housed next to an ammunition dump; and they hadn’t prevented soldiers from using cell phones, the signals of which the Ukrainians would use to locate them.
The criticism leveled at Russian uniformed commanders created an opportunity for Prigozhin to present himself and Wagner as indispensable to the war effort.
He appears to be trying to raise his political profile within Russia, though to what extent is unclear.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter who has broken ties with the president, said Prigozhin was looking to replace the defense minister. Sergey Shoiguan old confidant of Putin.
Wagner has become something of a shadow army for Russia, deployed in support of the Kremlin’s military campaigns in Africa and the Middle East.
Prigozin, ancient convicted criminalbecame a restaurateur and befriended Putin years ago, growing that relationship into a motley business empire, including the Wagner group.
He has been prosecuted in the United States, where he is accused of orchestrating Russian internet meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
This year, Prigozhin has lost the modest profile he once sought to maintain.
After long denying involvement in election meddling, he did so recently boasted its.
He criticized the regular army.
And, after having claimed for years that he had no relationship with Wagner – he even questioned his existence -, in September he acknowledged that he was its founder and that he had assumed his role in Ukraine.
Prigozhin supplemented the decimated Russian fighting ranks with tens of thousands of prisoners recruited for his mercenary force, awarded medals, visited military cemeteries and, according to his frequent videos, unexpectedly appeared in sections harder from the front.
In late December, Wagner’s fighters released a profanity-laden video directed at the military high command, accusing him of withholding ammunition and causing the deaths of his comrades.
Prigozhin responded to the video by saying “when you’re sitting in a hot office, trouble at the front is hard to hear,” apparently referring to the generals.
c.2023 The New York Times Society
Mark Jones is a world traveler and journalist for News Rebeat. With a curious mind and a love of adventure, Mark brings a unique perspective to the latest global events and provides in-depth and thought-provoking coverage of the world at large.