Why Putin's Choice For New Ukraine Commander Is All About Closing Ranks At Home
The choice of General Valery Gerasimov to replace General Sergey Surovikin is a political defeat for Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov — and a sign that Putin may be getting skittish on the home front.
Vladimir Putin has once again replaced his supreme military commander in Ukraine, just three months after a previous change at the top. The announcement Wednesday is clearly a sign of Putin's disappointment in the direction of the war – but perhaps more notably, a major political victory for the military establishment over outsiders who had been trying to gain influence.
Putin’s choice of General Valery Gerasimov to replace General Sergey Surovikin is not expected to affect the immediate course of the war, but it speaks to a change in the Russian president’s mindset. Unsatisfied with the Wagner PMC mercenary group, and its owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, recently tasked with a bigger share of the fighting, Putin has decided to rely on the established military elite again.
In the tenth month of the war, the military operation to seize Ukraine has become a war of survival for Putin.
Wagner Group falls short
Every day, Russian troops lose more of the territory they captured in the first weeks of the war. Now, there are fierce battles for the town of Soledar in the Donetsk region, where the most capable units of the Wagner PMC are located.
Putin has relied in recent months on the fighters of Wagner, led ever more prominently by Prigozhin. This had followed repeated instances of the regular military command showing incompetence and suffering severe defeats along the entire front line.
Indeed, Putin had created the post of commander of troops in Ukraine specifically for General Surovikin. Prigozhin and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov actively supported the new general, who quickly became a favorite of hawkish Russian propagandists and shifted war aims to include regular airstrikes on Ukraine's cities and energy infrastructure.
Valery Gerasimov attending troops training in the Rostov-on-Don Region
But after just three months, it became clear even to Putin that the new commander and Wagner and Kadyrov's touted fighters had brought no significant improvement on the front line.
A Ukrainian rocket artillery strike on a Wagner base on Jan. 1 reportedly killed as many as 70 of Prigozhin’s mercenaries. Meanwhile, the most robust units of the Russian army fight fiercely not for cities or strategic sites but for small villages.
Unable even to hold onto these small gains, they retreat, destroying everything in their path.
The new commander, Valery Gerasimov, is in fact not new to the Ukrainian war. He was already chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, and a deputy minister to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The demoted commander Surovikin will stay on as one of three deputies reporting to Gerasimov.
Military establishment v. outsiders
Thus on a most basic level, after all of the public boasting of Prigozhin and Kadyrov, the reshuffle shows that both have been outplayed by the more reserved Shoigu. Neither the head of Chechnya nor the owner of the Wagner had hidden their disdain for Shoigu, and had backed the appointment of Surovikin, who had built a reputation for brutality.
His replacement, Gerasimov, is firmly Shoigu's man — and both owe their position entirely to Putin.
Russian, Ukrainian, and foreign political and military experts have long said that the war in Ukraine can only end in the Kremlin. And for Russia, its outcome will depend on who can seize and hold onto power after Putin. Based on the new changes in the military command, we can assume that Putin has once again turned to the military establishment not so much to improve his chances at the front, but to shore up his power at home.
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