Russia has replaced Sergei Surovikin after barely three months as head of its Ukraine campaign following a succession of battlefield setbacks and failure to turn the war in Moscow’s favour.
Surovikin, whose nicknames include “General Armageddon”, will be replaced by Russia’s highest ranking military officer, Valery Gerasimov. Surovikin will stay on as one of his deputies.
The reshuffle — the second since the start of the full-scale invasion in February, comes after the Russian army lost ground to a Ukrainian counteroffensive and sparked a domestic backlash over a deadly strike against newly mobilised conscripts in a barracks in east Ukraine on New Year’s Day.
When he was appointed to the top job in October, the 56-year-old Surovikin was expected to turn round Russia’s flagging assault through escalation and brutal tactics developed during his leadership of the country’s forces in Syria.
But in those three months Russia lost control of the southern town of Kherson, the only regional Ukrainian capital it had managed to capture, and struggled to provide basic equipment, accommodation and modern weapons for the 300,000 men it began conscripting in September.
Together with deadly military mistakes — such as the housing of hundreds of conscripts in a single building in the town of Makiivka, leading to the deaths of dozens in a rocket strike by Kyiv — territorial losses have led to harsh rebukes from the Russian pro-war rightwing.
Surovikin also oversaw an intense campaign of strikes on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, regularly knocking out electricity in cities but not shaking up the balance of power on the front line.
Gerasimov, Russia’s 67-year-old chief of the general staff and its deputy defence minister, will take over as leader of the Joint Forces Group in the zone of the “special military operation”, the name Moscow gives to its invasion of Ukraine, which has entered its 11th month.
Oleg Salyukov, commander of the ground forces, and Alexei Kim, deputy chief of the general staff, were also appointed deputies to Gerasimov.
Russia’s defence ministry said the appointment of Gerasimov was a “raising of the status of the leadership” of the military force in Ukraine, a move “associated with the expansion of the scale of tasks to be accomplished”.
These tasks, it said, included “the need to organise closer co-operation between branches and services of the armed forces” and an “increase in the quality of all types of provision, and the effectiveness of management of troops”.
Since March, when Russia recorded its biggest gains, the territories seized and occupied by Moscow’s forces have more than halved in size, following significant losses in Kharkiv in the north east, and Kherson in the south.
Russian pro-war analysts were sceptical that the reshuffle would solve the problems its army is grappling with, which include inflexible and hierarchical leadership, equipment shortages and poor provisions.
“The sum doesn’t change by changing the places of its parts: this is the only thing that can be said about Gerasimov’s appointment,” wrote Rybar, a pro-Kremlin military analysis channel with more than a million subscribers on Telegram, and is run by a former member of the defence ministry press service.
The closest Russia has come to a battlefield victory since July has been its current push forward in the salt mine town of Soledar, near Bakhmut in Ukraine’s east.
But that fight has also revealed the faultlines dividing Russia’s forces in Ukraine.
Evgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private military contractor group, has insisted publicly that it is his men, rather than the regular armed forces, that have been fighting in the area. Some of Prigozhin’s men have recently shared videos in which they criticise Gerasimov and the general staff for equipment shortages.
On Wednesday, Russia’s defence ministry said its troops were also fighting in Soledar: “Units of the Russian Airborne Forces have blockaded Soledar from the north and south, assault detachments are fighting in the city, the Air Force is striking at the strongholds of Ukrainian troops.”
A person close to Russia’s defence ministry said the move to appoint Gerasimov as the leader of Russia’s regular forces in Ukraine reflected organisational struggles at the heart of the war effort, rather than a new direction.
“They are just shuffling the deck because they are in a dead end and have no idea what to do,” the person said. “These guys are all old men pushing 70 and they don’t know how to fight a modern war.”
The person likened the reshuffle to a classic Russian parable about a group of forest animals who form an incompetent instrumental quartet and ask a nightingale for advice, only to be told: “Arrange yourselves any way you like; it will make no difference. You will never become musicians.”
But Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst, said that Surovikin would retain a crucial leadership role on the ground, as Gerasimov would remain in an office position in Moscow.
However, by giving control of the operation in Ukraine to the army’s chief of general staff, the defence ministry hoped to reduce bureaucratic delays, seen as a critical disadvantage compared to Kyiv’s more nimble structure.
“The defence ministry hopes that this will allow the army to dramatically increase the speed of decision-making,” Markov wrote. The ministry could have been inspired by the Wagner group, he said.
“Thus, the success of Wagner and Prigozhin forces the Russian army to fight differently, in a more modern way,” Markov wrote on social media.