What Russia's military shake-up reveals about Putin's war in Ukraine

27 June 2022

4:51 PM

27 June 2022

4:51 PM

When General Alexander Dvornikov was made overall commander of Russia’s forces in April, it looked as if the amateurishness and incoordination of the early stage of the Ukraine war might be being addressed. Now, though, Dvornikov is not around, and a new commander may shape a savage new phase of operations.

In recent days, the Russian defence ministry announced that Colonel General Alexander Lapin was in command of the Central Group of Forces in Ukraine, while General Sergei Surovikin was heading the Southern Group of Forces during the invasion. Of Dvornikov, who has not been seen for weeks, there was no mention, and the British Ministry of Defence suggestshe has been removed from his post.

Lapin has been commander of the Central Military District since 2017 and is considered a safe pair of hands. The arrival of Surovikin, though, was a surprise given that he was previously head of the VKS, the Russian’s combined air and air defence forces. He is no airman. Until 2017, Surovikin served in the Ground Forces, fighting in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Russia’s military intervention into the Tajikistan civil war, and then the Second Chechen War, where he was wounded in action. He has a reputation for extreme toughness: in 2004, one of his subordinates shot himself in Surovikin’s office after he had been chewed out.

Surovikin has had a rather chequered past. He spent seven months in custody after the hard-line 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, as three protesters died when Surovikin forced his way through them. Then in 1995, he was convicted of having stolen and sold a service sidearm, although the charge was later quashed.

Nonetheless, he is also one of the most able officers of his generation, with a reputation as a problem-solver. He spent a tour between 2008-10 in charge of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate, its main planning and coordination department, which is often the mark of a high-flier tipped for the top. Then, in 2012, Surovikin was tasked with setting up the new Military Police (until then, Russia had lacked such a service).

In 2017, he was put in charge of Russia’s Group of Forces in Syria, for which he was awarded the Hero of Russia medal, and then on his return to Russia made commander of the VKS. This was a very unusual choice, but reflected a desire to see aerospace and ground forces coordinate better. There was a sense that Surovikin could break old habits and force the air forces to think more imaginatively about the future of air warfare.

His unprecedented second tour heading forces in Syria in 2019 made him a man to watch, possibly even a future Chief of the General Staff.

The current incumbent, General Valery Gerasimov is the longest-serving Chief of the General Staff in post-Soviet times, and there were hints that retirement was looming until the invasion. Now, Putin seems to fear the destabilising effect of reshuffles at the top of the system, but is certainly willing to shuffle through his generals. Colonel General Andrei Serdyukov, head of Russia’s airborne troops, has apparently been replaced by Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, Lapin’s former chief of staff, for example.

Over-heated headlines notwithstanding, this is not a ‘purge’ nor a sign of dysfunction or despair, but rather an attempt to identify which officers are best suited to the unexpectedly tough fight in which Russia has become embroiled in Ukraine.

As a result, while the overall strategy is not going to change, the tactics may. Surovikin is likely to want to re-emphasise airpower, but also may well be willing to up the ante to maintain Russia’s current advance. Above all, the 55-year-old is arguably a more plausible successor to Gerasimov. He has more to prove and more to lose, and a track record of ruthlessness, even by the standards of his peers.

He will therefore presumably want to make the best of the campaign season, drawing on his own harsh lessons from Chechnya and Syria. The summer could get still hotter in the Donbas.

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