U.S. experts say Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “hesitant” decision this week to appoint a new leader for his invasion of Ukraine reflects a growing sense of desperation for the Kremlin.
The appointment of former Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov as overall commander of the country’s so-called special military operation has made global observers increasingly skeptical of Putin’s strategy in wartime after a string of embarrassing battlefield losses since the summer.
But the change, which included the demotion of General Sergey Surovikin, leader of the invasion since October, could also point to a coming escalation in Russia’s heavy-handed warfare tactics.
“I feel like Putin is getting restless because he’s not getting what he wants,” former US 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 point. …His army is not able to do what he wants for all sorts of institutional, historical, corruption, competence and command structure upheaval reasons, I don’t think that will get him that that he wants.
This line of thinking was shared by the main Pentagon spokesman, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, who said Putin’s decisions point to continued logistical, leadership and manpower challenges for Russia in the fight, now nearly in its second year.
Gerasimov’s promotion reflects “some of the systemic challenges the Russian military has faced since the start of this invasion,” Ryder told reporters on Thursday.
“We talked about some of these things in terms of logistics issues, command and control issues, sustainment issues, morale issues and the great failure to achieve the strategic objectives that they set out to achieve,” he said. he adds.
The view was also voiced by the UK’s former chief of staff, Richard Dannatt, who told Sky News last week that Putin’s decision to replace Surovikin with Gerasimov – just three months on the assumption of office of the first – can be considered 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 reclaimed thousands of square miles from Kremlin control.
For weeks, Moscow has struggled to gain control of the eastern salt mining town of Soledar, a fight that was still being contested on Monday. Although it is not expected to turn the tide of the war, a Russian victory could allow further advances in the Donetsk region and give Putin a symbolic victory.
Amid the battle on the ground, Russia also renewed its missile attacks on several Ukrainian cities on Saturday for the first time in nearly two weeks, a barrage that continued through Monday.
Among the most affected, Ukraine fourth largest city Dnipro, with at least 40 people including three children dead after a Kremlin cruise missile hit a building in one of the deadliest 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, seen with Gerasimov’s new role, seem to indicate that Russia is stepping up its tactics against Ukraine in a bid to swing the conflict in favor of Moscow.
Gerasimov “needs some kind of victory or a career ends in ignominy. It might well suggest some sort of escalation,” tweeted Mark Galeotti from London consultancy Mayak Intelligence. “Not the nuclear option, but more mobilization or, arguably more logical militarily but politically dangerous, also deploying conscripts.”
Andriy Yusov, spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, said Gerasimov’s new post was part of a goal to seize the Donbass region in early spring.
“Putin does not pay attention to reality. . .. And the next timeline he is already defining for Gerasimov as, say, the new leader of the war against Ukraine… This goal is to seize Donbass and form a security zone there, but already by March,” Yusov told Ukrainian media FREEDIM. TV.
While not seen as promising for Russia’s battlefield outcome, the setbacks and Moscow’s change of leadership do not make the country any less dangerous, warned John Herbst, former US ambassador to Ukraine, now a member of the Atlantic Council.
“The incompetence of the Russian military has now been fully demonstrated,” Herbst told The Hill. “I don’t want to exaggerate that because they still have strong assets. They have a lot more ammunition and delivery systems than the Ukrainians and they have more men than the Ukrainians, and they are willing to let them die trying to get marginal pieces of territory.
Herbst likened the change of leadership to political theater for Putin to face criticism for his military failures.
“Putin has a problem [and] he is happy to see that others are being blamed for the failures of his operation. … As long as he’s kept away from criticism, that’s fine with him,” Herbst said.