Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “flailing” decision this week to name a new leader for his invasion of Ukraine reflects a growing sense of desperation for the Kremlin, US experts say.
The appointment of Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the former chief of Russia’s general staff, as overall commander of the country’s so-called special military operation has global watchers increasingly dubious of Putin’s wartime strategy following a series of embarrassing battlefield losses since summer.
But the switch-up, which included the demotion of Gen. Sergey Surovikin, head of the invasion since October, could also indicate a coming escalation of Russia’s brutal war tactics.
“My sense is that Putin is flailing because he’s not getting what he wants,” former US Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor told The Hill.
“His military is failing. He’s trying to shake things up in order to get a better outcome, and that’s not the problem. … His military is not capable of doing what he wants for all kinds of institutional, historical, corruption, competence reasons, and shaking up the command structure, I don’t think it is going to get him what he wants.”
That line of thinking was shared by the Pentagon’s top spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, who said Putin’s decisions point to ongoing logistical, leadership and manpower challenges for Russia in the fight, now almost in its second year.
Gerasimov’s promotion reflects “some of the systemic challenges that the Russian military has faced since the beginning of this invasion,” Ryder told reporters Thursday.
“We’ve talked about some of those things in terms of its logistics problems, command and control problems, sustainment problems, morale and the large failure to obtain the strategic objectives that they’ve set for themselves,” he added.
The view also was voiced by Richard Dannatt, the United Kingdom’s former chief of the general staff, who last week told Sky News that Putin’s decision to replace Surovikin with Gerasimov — just three months after the former took charge — can be seen as a “sign of desperation.”
Russia is trying to turn the tide of the war after months of struggling to make advances in the face of a strong Ukrainian counteroffensive that has clawed back thousands of square kilometers from Kremlin control.
Moscow for weeks has struggled to take over the eastern salt-mining town of Soledar, a fight that was still being contested as of Monday. While not expected to turn the tide of the war, a Russian win could allow for further advances in the Donetsk region as well as give Putin a symbolic victory.
Amid the on-the-ground battle, Russia on Saturday also renewed missile attacks on several Ukrainian cities for the first time in nearly two weeks, a barrage that continued into Monday.
Among the worst hit was Ukraine’s fourth largest city Dnipro, with at least 40 people, including three children, dead after a Russian cruise missile struck an apartment block, one of the deadliest single attacks of the war, according to Ukrainian officials. Another 75 individuals were injured in the attack, and 46 are still reported missing.
The new missile strikes, when viewed with Gerasimov’s new role, seem to indicate Russia is stepping up its tactics against Ukraine in a bid to shift the conflict in Moscow’s favor.
Gerasimov “needs some kind of win or a career ends in ignominy. This may well suggest some kinds of escalation,” tweeted Mark Galeotti of the London consultancy firm Mayak Intelligence. “Not the nuclear option, but more mobilization or, arguably more militarily logical but politically dangerous, also deploying conscripts.”
Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, said Gerasimov’s new position was part of a goal to seize the Donbas region by early spring.
“Putin does not pay attention to reality. … And the next timeline he defines already for Gerasimov as, let’s say, the new leader of the war against Ukraine. … This goal is to seize Donbas and form a security zone there but already by March,” Yusov told Ukrainian news outlet FREEDOM TV.
Although not viewed as promising for Russia’s battlefield outcome, Moscow’s setbacks and leadership shuffle do not make the country any less dangerous, warned John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine now with the Atlantic Council.
“The incompetence of the Russian military has now been thoroughly demonstrated,” Herbst told The Hill. “I don’t want to overstate that because they still have significant assets. They have a hell of a lot more ammunition and delivery systems than Ukrainians do and they have more men than the Ukrainians do, and they’re willing to let them die to try and get marginal pieces of territory.”
Herbst compared the leadership switch to political theater for Putin to deal with the criticism for his military failures.
“Putin has a problem [and] he’s happy to see others receive blame for the failures of his operation. … As long as he’s kept away from the criticism, it’s fine with him,” Herbst said.