Experts see “desperation” in Putin’s military leadership reshuffle

Experts see “desperation” in Putin’s military leadership reshuffle

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “swinging” decision this week to name a new leader for his invasion of Ukraine reflects a growing sense of desperation for the Kremlin, US experts say.

The appointment of former chief of the general staff General Valery Gerasimov as the overall commander of the country’s so-called special military operation has raised doubts among global observers about Putin’s wartime strategy after a series of embarrassing battlefield losses since the summer.

But the reshuffle, which included the demotion of General Sergei Surovikin, the leader of the October invasion, could also signal an impending escalation in Russia’s brutal military tactics.

“My sense is that Putin is getting out because he’s not getting what he wants,” former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor told The Hill.

“His army is failing. He’s trying to shake things up to get a better result and that’s not the problem. … His army is not able to do what he wants because of all kinds of institutional, historical, corruption, competence reasons and shaking up the command structure, I don’t think that’s going to give him what he wants.”

This line of thinking was shared by the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, who said Putin’s decisions point to continuing logistical, leadership and human challenges for Russia in the battle, which is now in its second year.

Gerasimov’s promotion reflects “some of the systemic challenges that the Russian military has faced since the beginning of this invasion,” Ryder told reporters Thursday.

“We’ve talked about some of these things in terms of logistics issues, command and control issues, sustainment issues, morale and the major failure to achieve the strategic objectives that they’ve set out,” he added.

The view was echoed by former UK chief of staff Richard Danath, who told Sky News last week that Putin’s decision to replace Surovikin with Gerasimov – just three months after the former took over – could be seen as ” a sign of despair.”

Russia is trying to turn the tide of the war after months of struggling to make progress in the face of a strong Ukrainian counteroffensive that has wrested thousands of square kilometers from Kremlin control.

Moscow has been fighting for weeks to capture the eastern salt mining town of Soledar, a battle that was still contested as of Monday. While not expected to turn the tide of the war, a Russian victory could allow further advances in the Donetsk region, as well as give Putin a symbolic victory.

Amid the ground battle, Russia on Saturday also renewed missile attacks on several Ukrainian cities for the first time in nearly two weeks, a barrage that continued into Monday.

Among the worst affected is Ukraine the fourth largest city of the Dnieper, with at least 40 people, including three children, killed after a Kremlin cruise missile hit an apartment block, one of the deadliest single attacks of the war, according to Ukrainian officials. Another 75 people were injured in the attack and 46 are still missing.

The new missile strikes, when viewed with Gerasimov’s new role, appear to indicate that Russia is stepping up its tactics against Ukraine in an attempt to shift the conflict in Moscow’s favor.

Gerasimov “needs some kind of victory or his career ends in ingloriousness.” This could suggest some kind of escalation,” tweeted Mark Galeotti of the London consulting firm Mayak Intelligence. “Not the nuclear option, but more mobilization or, perhaps more logical from a military point of view, but politically dangerous, also deploying conscripts.”

Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, said Gerasimov’s new position was part of the goal of capturing the Donbas region by early spring.

“Putin does not pay attention to reality. . .. And the next schedule he already sets for Gerasimov as, let’s say, the new leader of the war against Ukraine… This goal is to capture the Donbass and create a security zone there, but already in March,” Yusov told the Ukrainian publication FREEDIM television.

While not seen as promising for Russia’s battlefield outcome, Moscow’s setbacks and leadership reshuffles do not make the country any less dangerous, warned John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, now at the Atlantic Council.

“The incompetence of the Russian military has now been fully demonstrated,” Herbst told The Hill. “I don’t want to overstate this because they still have significant assets. They have a hell of a lot more munitions and delivery systems than the Ukrainians and they have more people than the Ukrainians and are willing to let them die to try and get marginal pieces of territory.

Herbst compared the leadership change to political theater for Putin to deal with criticism of his military failures.

“Putin has a problem [and] he enjoys seeing others get the blame for his operation’s failures. … As long as he steers clear of criticism, he’s fine,” Herbst said.

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