Russia’s Defense Ministry announced yet another realignment of the commanders leading the war in Ukraine on Wednesday, as criticism mounts over its handling of the stalled campaign.
It said that General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, would become the overall commander of the campaign, with the current commander, Sergey Surovikin, becoming one of his three deputies.
Surovikin was only appointed as the overall commander of what the Kremlin euphemistically calls the “Special Military Operation” in October.
In terms of the bureaucratic hierarchy, the announcement is hardly an upheaval. Surovikin already reported to Gerasimov.
“Generals are moved, shuffled from the Front to the Headquarters. From Headquarters to the Front,” Russian television commentator Sergey Markov said Wednesday on Telegram.
“Surovikin is not punished and Gerasimov is not punished. It’s all one team. Well, of course with competition, which always happens among the top dogs.”
But the decision puts Gerasimov, who has been chief of the General Staff for more than a decade, closer to direct supervision of the campaign – and to responsibility for it. While Gerasimov was a key figure in planning the invasion, he appears to have been at arms’ length since, with just one reported visit to the command of the campaign inside Ukraine, though the Defense Ministry did not confirm that either.
Mark Galeotti, senior associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, said “it is a kind of demotion [for Gerasimov] or at least the most poisoned of chalices. It’s now on him, and I suspect Putin has unrealistic expectations again.”
Gerasimov has sometimes gone weeks without public appearances and was not seen at the Victory Day parade in Moscow last year, which at the time led to speculation about his position.
He now combines direct command of the Ukraine campaign with that of chief interlocutor with the United States on issues such as military “de-confliction.”
He last spoke with the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, in November after a Ukrainian air defense missile landed in Poland.
Just why the Russian Defense Ministry has made this move at this moment is unclear. It said there was a “need to organize closer interaction between the branches and arms of the Armed Forces” and improve the support and effectiveness of “command and control of groupings of troops.”