Putin’s military command reshuffle reveals a power struggle at the heart of the Ukraine war

Analysts believe that the latest reshuffle by Russian President Vladimir Putin of the top brass responsible for Ukraine operations shows a deeper power struggle between Moscow’s military command, and its domestic detractors.

Yevgeny Prizhin, leader of the Wagner Group, a private military organization fighting in Ukraine, is one of the most powerful and prominent critics of Moscow’s strategy in Ukraine. Yevgeny Prigozhin has criticized defense chiefs for a series humiliating losses and retreats in the conflict.

His criticisms were rewarded with the October appointment by Gen. Sergei Surovkin to the role of the overall battlefield commander for Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. Prigozhin praised Surovikin’s title and called him “General Armageddon”, a nickname for the Russian army commander.

Surovikin was later responsible for a huge aerial bombardment of Ukraine that damaged a large portion of the country’s energy infrastructure during winter. Surovikin also suggested (in what appeared like a choreographed meeting of Russian television) that Russian troops withdraw from a region of Kherson in south Ukraine in November. This was an unpopular suggestion that was nonetheless supported by Prigozhin.

Three months later, Surovikin’s mandate was over. The Russian defense ministry stated that Surovikin’s mandate was over, with little territorial progress in Ukraine. He was replaced by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who was appointed his deputy. Gerasimov, a Putin loyalist, was the highest-ranking uniformed officer in Russia during his time as chief of Russia’s armed forces.

Analysts believe that the replacement could be a result of Moscow’s changing sentiment towards Prigozhin or the Wagner Group, as well as Putin’s dissatisfaction at the inability to make tactical advances in the Moscow-styled special military operation in Ukraine.

Putin friend and ally Prigozhin, a long-term Putin associate, has been more vocal during the war. His private military company of 50,000 men — which recruits from Russian prisons — has had successes on the battlefield. Moscow has been riled by Prigozhin’s frequent praises of Russian military commanders as well as his boasts about the Wagner Group’s victories.

Tuesday saw Prigozhin claim that his military company had taken Soledar in Donetsk. This was a crucial target and the scene of many clashes over the past months. However, the Kremlin was much more cautious in declaring victory. Russia’s Ministry of Defense claimed that its elite airborne forces had attacked Soledar from the south and north, while fighting continued in the center.

Power struggle

The Institute for the Study of War analysts said Gerasimov’s promotion and the broader command overhaul likely sought “traditional power structures” such as Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD), against threats from Prigozhin or other “siloviki”, who are “strongmen” who have been critical of Moscow’s Ukraine military strategy.

“Gerasimov’s nomination as theater commander likely advances 2 Kremlin initiatives: An attempt to improve Russian command, control, for a decisive army effort in 2023 and a political move, to strengthen the Russian MoD, against challenges from the Russian siloviki and millbloggers, such as Yevgeny Prgozhin, Wagner Group financier, who have criticized Russia’s conduct in the war,” ISW analysts said Wednesday evening.

They added that Gerasimov’s elevation and that of the Russian MoD over Surovikin was “highly likely” to be a political decision to reaffirm the primacy and influence of the Russian MoD within an internal Russian power struggle. Gerasimov’s promotion may also have been a signal to Prigozhin or other actors to lessen their criticism of MoD.

The ISW stated thatPrigozhin had promoted the Wagner Group in a relentless manner at the expense Russian MoD’s reputation. He may also double down on flashy advertisements on Russian social networks and state-affiliated outlets in order to prove the superiority and strength of his forces.”

Poisoned chalice

The U.K. Ministry of Defence commented on Wednesday’s reshuffle, calling it an indicator “of the increasing severity of Russia’s situation and a clear acknowledgment that the campaign falls short of Russia’s strategic objectives.”

The statement stated that Gerasimov was being blamed for the failure to execute the war, and it was likely that this move would be met with disapproval by many of the Russian ultranationalists and military bloggers.

Surovikin, on the other hand, has been highly praised for championing a more realistic approach. His authority and influence are almost certain to be greatly diminished as a deputy commander.

According to Mark Galeotti (political scientist), Surovikin might benefit from not being in charge. He said Gerasimov was being given “the most poisoned chalices”.

Gerasimov said, “It is a form of demotion or at the very least the most poisoned chalices.” It’s now upon him, and I suspect Putin still has unrealistic expectations,” Galeotti, director at Mayak Intelligence on Wednesday, tweeted.

“It is clear that there will likely be spring offensives. There may be some advances but nothing decisive. The Ukrainians will also be seeking a spring offensive. Moscow’s strategy is not based on victory on the battlefield. It’s more political. He said that Russia was in it for the long-term, and he hopes that the West will lose the will to continue supporting Kyiv.