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Putin’s army chief handed ‘poisoned chalice’ amid Russian power tussle


President Vladimir Putin has put his top military officer Valery Gerasimov in charge of Russia’s stalled invasion of Ukraine, in the latest reshuffle since the start of the war. The chief of the general staff will be expected to bolster the army’s sagging war effort while contending with the Wagner Group’s growing influence – a tall order that has led some analysts to suspect he was set up to fail.

Just three months after he last reshuffled the deck, Putin has picked another commander to lead Russia’s troubled campaign in Ukraine, reflecting the Kremlin’s dissatisfaction with the course of the so-called “special military operation” launched on February 24. 

This time Putin has tapped his most senior officer Valery Gerasimov, his chief of the general staff for the past decade, demoting his predecessor Sergei Surovikin after just 95 days in the job. 

The reshuffle means it is now up to “the third most important figure in Russia’s military hierarchy – after Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu – to rectify the situation in Ukraine”, says Jeff Hawn, a specialist on the Russian military and consultant for the American geopolitical research centre New Lines Institute. 

More moderate than ‘General Armageddon’ 

Gerasimov, 67, is not only the highest-ranking officer in the army; he is also a very different type of commander from Surovikin, who was dubbed “General Armageddon” for his reputed ruthlessness.  

The longest-serving chief of the General Staff since Soviet times, Gerasimov can boast of a solid CV with past successes in Chechnya and Crimea. “He is also seen as a moderating influence on the course of the war and someone Washington can work with,” says Hawn. 

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“He is no ‘General Armageddon’ like Surovikin, for sure, but it’s not clear how much of an impact he can have on the course of the war,” cautions Stephen Hall, a Russia specialist at the University of Bath. Indeed, “even if he wanted to overhaul the Russian army’s modus operandi, he would have neither the equipment, nor the means, nor indeed the manpower to do so”, adds Hawn. 

From a strictly military point of view, the reshuffle is “Confirmation, if we needed it, that there will be serious offensives coming, and that even Putin recognises that poor coordination has been an issue,” Russia security analyst Mark Galeotti wrote on Twitter.


 

 

In a statement announcing Gerasimov’s appointment, Russia’s Defence Ministry said the aim was to “organise closer interaction between branches of the military”. His twin roles as chief of the general staff and top commander in Ukraine mean he has the tools in hand to deliver – at least on paper.  

Sacrifice Gerasimov or weaken Wagner? 

The real significance of the shake-up, however, could well be political, coming at a turning point in the battle for influence between Russia’s regular army and the paramilitary Wagner Group led by billionaire businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin.  

The army’s standing in Moscow has been seriously eroded by a string of setbacks in Ukraine, culminating with the deadly – and humiliating – New Year missile strike on a Russian barracks in Makiivka, which exposed the military command’s carelessness and incompetence. 

In contrast, Prigozhin and his mercenaries have been flexing their muscles in the gruesome battle for Soledar, on Wednesday claiming they singlehandedly defeated the Donbas town’s Ukrainian defenders. Annoyed by Wagner’s banter, the Russian army rushed to point out that fighting was still ongoing – and that its paratroopers were very much involved in the battle. 


 

While the outcome of the bloodbath in Soledar is still uncertain, the Wagner Group has already won a PR battle, cementing the perception in Moscow that Prigozhin’s militiamen are at the forefront of Russia’s only territorial advance in several months. This has given further ammunition to the military’s ultra-nationalist critics and allowed Prigozhin to score points against his rival at the Kremlin, Defence Minister Shoigu. 

“The two detest each other, and their every move should be read as an attempt to weaken the other in the eyes of Putin and his court,” says Hawn. 

Given the context, one plausible reading of Gerasimov’s appointment is “to see it as a warning addressed by Putin to Prigozhin, so he doesn’t think he can do whatever he likes”, argues Hall. As one of Shoigu’s closest collaborators, the new commander in chief “is likely to allow the Wagner Group much less freedom than his processor Surovikin, who is considered ideologically closer to Prigozhin”, adds the Kremlin watcher.  

The reshuffle also eases some of the pressure on Shoigu, explains Hall: “He will no longer have to deal constantly with Surovikin, who spent much of his time trying to stab him in the back.” 

The balancing act would be a classic Putin move, he adds, noting that the master of the Kremlin is loath to let one faction rise above the others “and start sounding overconfident”. If this is the case, Gerasimov has effectively received a mandate to put Wagner back in its place.  

Divide and rule 

The mandate, however, comes with a poisoned chalice for Putin’s Chief of the General Staff, whose latest promotion could turn out to be his last. 

“From now on, he’s in the firing line and can no longer blame others should the situation further deteriorate in Ukraine,” Hawn explains. “He is put in a situation to fail, which would give Putin an excuse to get rid of him and thereby please the far-right camp.”  

The fact that Gerasimov will remain in Moscow, far from the action in Ukraine, makes his position all the more delicate. Under the new chain of command, he will have two deputies tasked with implementing his orders – one of whom is none other than Surovikin. The latter “can easily carry on as he did before, while working to trip up Gerasimov”, says Hall. 

Hence the many eyebrows raised in the wake of the Kremlin’s announcement, which has been described as both good and bad news for the Wagner Group, and appears to strengthen Shoigu while leaving his close ally Gerasimov dangerously exposed. 

While Putin’s objective is typically cryptic, his latest move follows a well-known Kremlin playbook: “to pit his collaborators one against the other, ensuring they are busy bickering among themselves while he remains above the fray”, says Hall.   

Mindful that Russia’s woes in Ukraine could eventually tarnish him too, Putin has opted to put all his big guns in the same Ukrainian arena – and see what happens. 

This article was translated from the original in French.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio





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