President Vladimir V. Putin is on his third overall commander in Ukraine. But his military’s fundamental issues have not been addressed, Western officials say.
WASHINGTON — Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the architect of President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, took over the day-to-day running of Russia’s war effort this month by convincing his boss that his predecessor was too passive, American and European officials say.
But General Gerasimov’s turbocharged strategy is what led to Russia’s problems to begin with, and Moscow still does not have the troops, ammunition or equipment that military officials say it needs to mass the big offensive promised by the country’s senior military leader.
Since General Gerasimov replaced Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who was in the job for only three months, Russia’s military leadership has focused on tactical issues like whether troops should travel in civilian vehicles and the dangers of their cellphone use, Western officials say. But while those matters have certainly bedeviled service members, there is no evidence that the Russian military has begun to address its fundamental problems, like shortages of ammunition and well-trained troops, despite the musical chairs of generals, according to these officials.
In Washington, where military and defense officials walk the halls of the Pentagon with lists of the steadily growing number of Russian generals who have been fired or demoted during 11 months of war (nine so far), the latest installment of who’s in charge is viewed as part of a drama with an ever-evolving cast of characters who have not gotten the job done.
“It’s kind of like a reality TV show,” Colin H. Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, told reporters last week. “And I think it’s more indicative that the Russians have still not figured it out about how they intend to command the fight, and I think the dysfunction among Russian commanders is pretty profound.”
Now on his third overall war commander, Mr. Putin has accomplished few of his goals. Russian troops have failed to seize Kyiv, the capital; President Volodymyr Zelensky is still in power; Ukraine has closer ties to the West than ever; and despite signs of some cracks, NATO remains united. Even Russia’s more limited goal of taking over the entire eastern region of Donbas remains elusive.
To fix this mess, Mr. Putin has turned to none other than General Gerasimov.
For 10 years, General Gerasimov was believed to be working to modernize the Russian armed forces as the chief of general staff for the military — the equivalent of the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had studied American misadventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the former Yugoslavia and Libya, and aimed to incorporate those insights into the plans.
But evidence of that effort has yet to emerge on the Ukrainian battlefield.
General Gerasimov, 67, comes complete with contradictions that characterize senior Russian leaders: His counterparts in the West say he has personal integrity, but that he pushes the lies of his government. He told Western officials early last year that Russia had no intention of invading Ukraine; weeks later, Russian troops had crossed the border. He has also remained close to Mr. Putin, who appointed him head of his military more than a decade ago.
In rare public comments, mimicking Mr. Putin’s propaganda, General Gerasimov portrayed Russia as a victim of Western aggression, without explaining his strategy to neutralize the perceived threat.
The State of the War
- Military Aid: Germany and the United States announced they would send battle tanks to Ukraine, a decision that came after weeks of tense back-channel negotiations between Western officials. But it may be months before the tanks rumble across the battlefield.
- Russian Strikes: A day after the announcement, Russia fired dozens of missiles at Ukrainian cities, piercing snow clouds and air defenses to kill at least 12 people across the country.
- Corruption Scandal: After a number of allegations of government corruption, several top Ukrainian officials were fired, in the biggest upheaval in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government since Russia’s invasion began 11 months ago.
“Our country and its armed forces today are opposing practically the entire collective West,” he said in an interview with the Russian newspaper Arguments and Facts published on Jan. 24, adding that NATO is “using Ukraine for a hybrid war against our nation.”
As he sought to overhaul the Russian military, General Gerasimov elevated the irregular warfare tactics that he falsely believed that Americans were conducting, instead of focusing on what the United States did well — combined arms warfare, blending various military capabilities to create overwhelming force, Seth G. Jones, the national security expert, argues in his book “Three Dangerous Men.”
As a result, Russia’s military gained expertise in subterfuge and clandestine tactics, like sending Russian Spetsnaz special forces units, without insignia, to Crimea before Russia illegally annexed the peninsula in 2014.
But the war in Ukraine has required a different kind of maneuvering: offensive campaigns by large numbers of ground forces operating in different areas with the goal of seizing land. There, General Gerasimov has been ineffective.
The troops sent to take Kyiv in the early days of the war lacked even basic supplies and soon stalled outside the city. He did not hone the military’s ability to move large numbers of different kinds of troops, by land, air and sea, yet his invasion plan depended on that. Russian forces got bogged down, and then eviscerated, in northern Ukrainian cities and towns.
General Gerasimov himself almost fell victim to his military’s poor planning when, in late April, he narrowly escaped being killed in a Ukrainian strike when he visited troops. Dozens of Russians were killed instead, in an incident that prompted Moscow to scale back visits from leaders to the front.
“This goes to the lack of serious training and operational experience in the Russian Ministry of Defense,” said Frederick Hodges, a retired lieutenant general and former top U.S. Army commander in Europe. “When you get into a real war, like the one in Ukraine, all their shortcomings are immediately exposed.”
The result of those shortcomings was on display last November in a scene broadcast on Russian state television. Standing in front of a map and a Russian flag, and wearing army fatigues, General Surovikin announced Russia’s retreat from the southern city of Kherson, calling it a “difficult” decision.
“Having assessed the situation, I propose to take up defense on the left bank of the Dnipro,” he told his superiors, in a reference to the river that offered the sole remaining escape route.
Missing from the scripted televised meeting was Mr. Putin — an absence, American and NATO officials said, that reflected his desire to distance himself from what was by any account a stunning military defeat.
Just a month earlier, General Surovikin had been appointed to lead the Ukraine effort, replacing Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov.
But General Surovikin, according to American military officials and Biden administration officials, had solidified a shaky Russian position in Ukraine, particularly in the south. He had pushed for Russian forces to abandon Kherson and conducted a retreat that minimized Russian casualties. He then focused his forces on what the U.S. military calls “defense in depth,” building secondary trench lines.
While his defensive moves raised worries in Washington that Russia might be able to withstand renewed Ukrainian offensives, Russian military bloggers had a far different reaction.
The bloggers, who have emerged as an influential voice during the conflict, criticized the Russian military command for the retreat from Kherson. Mr. Putin had been uncomfortable with that plan, initially rejecting General Surovikin’s recommendation to pull back. U.S. and allied officials believe that General Gerasimov and Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, used Mr. Putin’s skepticism of the defensive stance against General Surovikin.
American officials predicted in December that General Gerasimov and Mr. Shoigu would try to reassert their control over the military amid intense jockeying for Mr. Putin’s ear. In January, the two made their move, engineering a field demotion for General Surovikin.
The officials say that General Gerasimov and Mr. Shoigu attacked General Surovikin’s defensive posture and proposed a return to the “hyper offensive,” with a potential initial goal of taking Kramatorsk, in the east. Russian-controlled separatists initially took the city in 2014 but were driven out by Ukrainian forces during an earlier phase of the war.
In another sign of a broader shake-up, Gen. Col. Mikhail Teplinsky has probably been dismissed as one of Russia’s key operational commanders in Ukraine, according to a British defense intelligence assessment this week.
“Teplinsky was the officer on the ground in charge of Russia’s relatively successful withdrawal from west of the Dnipro in November 2022, and he has received praise in Russia as a capable and pragmatic commander,” the assessment said.
Promoting General Gerasimov, U.S. and other Western military officials say, was intended to both deflect criticism of the war effort from the military bloggers and to check the rising power of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the mercenary group Wagner that has spearheaded the bloody Russian offensive at Bakhmut in the Donbas. Mr. Prigozhin has also been a staunch supporter of General Surovikin.
“The recent shake-up in commanders of the war effort seems like the result of political infighting and cronyism,” said Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation in Washington.
With Mr. Putin still insisting that Russia will seize the Donbas and even Kyiv, expectations are rising that General Gerasimov will be under immense pressure to carry out a successful offensive this spring, military officials and analysts say.
“It’s now on him, and I suspect Putin has unrealistic expectations again,” Mark Galeotti, who studies Russian security affairs, said in a Twitter message, calling General Gerasimov’s promotion “the most poisoned of chalices.”
Anatoly Kurmanaev contributed reporting from Berlin.