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Why have Russia’s armed forces been so ineffective in Ukraine? - The Economist - 15.05.23

Chaos in the top ranks offers some clues.


YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN, the waspish head of the Wagner mercenary group fighting for Russia in eastern Ukraine, has a history of theatrical insubordination. But his comments on May 9th—when he said that a nameless “granddad” could turn out to be “a complete jerk”—took things to a new level. Excitable Wagner watchers have suggested that the insult was aimed at Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president and Mr Prigozhin’s long-time patron.


More probably it was an attack on one of two others in the top brass: Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, or Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff. Mr Prigozhin believes that they are deliberately limiting his room for manoeuvre. It was a remarkable declaration of dissent in a campaign already synonymous with chaos and disunity among its commanders.


Russia went to war in Ukraine in February 2022 without an overall operation commander of its armed forces. (Some observers have said that Mr Putin wanted to take the plaudits himself for what he expected to be a blitzkrieg on Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.) In the 15 months since then, Russia has rotated through at least four commanding generals (see timeline).


First came Alexander Dvornikov, who was replaced in late May 2022 by Gennady Zhidko, who served for barely four months. Sergei Surovikin then took over in October, following Ukraine’s unexpected counter-offensive success in the regions of Kharkiv and Kherson. He was replaced by the current top general, Valery Gerasimov, in January—a remarkable reshuffle given Mr Surovikin’s perceived competence and Mr Gerasimov’s centrality to the doomed effort to take Kyiv. Ukraine has, by comparison, stuck with one man, Valery Zaluzhny.


Tatyana Stanovaya, a political analyst, identifies two phases to Mr Putin’s cadre policy. First, the Russian leader experimented with new faces and unconventional forces. He empowered Mr Prigozhin and his Wagner group by granting access to weapons and ammunition, allowing them to recruit convicts from prisons. He appointed new commanders to three of the four military districts. “Putin was initially fighting with officers he didn’t know so well,” Ms Stanovaya says. “The more reverses that came his way, the more he got to know his men’s weaknesses, and the more he shuffled the pack.” A second phase began last autumn. Mr Putin tried to reassert traditional military hierarchies following Ukraine’s successful counter-offensives. Mr Prigozhin stopped recruiting from prisons and Mr Surovikin was confirmed as the first official theatre commander, a move that was interpreted as Russia trying to improve communication between its units and seeking a figurehead for disaffected troops. Later, his job was handed to the uber-loyalist General Gerasimov, who oversaw a lacklustre winter campaign including a humiliating reversal at Vuhledar, where over 1,000 of his elite soldiers were reportedly killed in one day.


Mr Putin’s tinkering amid obvious infighting continues. Some lower-level generals have been replaced as part of the latest changes, which came in April. General Mikhail Teplinsky, who was rumoured to have been dismissed following a personal conflict with Mr Gerasimov, was brought back to an important role, as head of Russia’s VDV Airborne forces. Amid the command chaos it is clear that only one man is ever really in charge: Mr Putin.■



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YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN, the waspish head of the Wagner mercenary group fighting for Russia in eastern Ukraine, has a history of theatrical insubordination.


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