April 20, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Russia demotes Pacific Fleet commander following surprise ‘readiness check’

Institute for the Study of War

April 20, 2023

The Kremlin demoted the commander of the Russian Pacific Fleet on April 19 amid an ongoing surprise readiness check that began on April 14. Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District Yury Trutnev announced on April 19 the “appointment” of Russian Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Sergei Avakyants to the headquarters overseeing Russia’s military sports training and patriotic education centers, a clear demotion for one of the seniormost commanding officers in the Russian Navy. It is unclear why a Kremlin official initially announced Avakyants’ reappointment instead of the Ministry of Defense. The Russian Pacific Fleet reported on April 20 that Avankyants is changing position due to his reaching the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) age limit for military service (65 years). However, Russian state media outlet TASS reported that its sources claimed that Avakyants’ demotion was not due to his old age. Several Russian general officers – including current Russian theater commander in Ukraine and Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov and Commander-in-chief of the Ground Forces Oleg Salyukov – have served in the Russian armed forces beyond turning 65. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced a surprise readiness check of the Pacific Fleet on April 14 that is still ongoing as of April 20. Russian state wire TASS reported on April 20 that two sources close to the Russian Pacific Fleet’s management stated that current Commander of the Russian Baltic Fleet Admiral Viktor Liina may take command of the Pacific Fleet and that Deputy Chief of the General Staff Vice Admiral Vladimir Vorobyov may command the Baltic Fleet.

The Kremlin clearly demoted Avakyants from a senior operational commander to a military bureaucrat overseeing programmatic work, despite Russian officials’ framing of the shift as a new “appointment.” Avakyants’ demotion may be connected to the poor performance of Pacific Fleet naval infantry (such as the 155th and 40th naval infantry brigades) around Vuhledar since early 2023. Avakyants alternatively may have failed in some manner to conduct large-scale drills in the Pacific. Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin linked Avakyants’ dismissal to the Pacific Fleet drills and sarcastically questioned if someone could conduct drills within the Russian MoD, likely advocating for the dismissal of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Another milblogger welcomed Avakyants’ dismissal, stating that Russia needs to appoint younger commanders like Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov.

A prominent Russian milblogger criticized the Russian military’s ineffective use of Russian airborne (VDV), naval infantry, and Spetsnaz forces in Ukraine. The milblogger argued on April 20 that Russian forces are relying on VDV, Spetsnaz, and naval infantry units to conduct ground attacks in Ukraine due to a lack of high-quality infantry, despite VDV and Spetsnaz units not initially being prepared for conducting combined arms operations. The milblogger argued that VDV, Spetsnaz, and naval infantry units need to carry out their intended purposes and not serve as the Russian military’s elite infantry and assault groups in Ukraine. The milblogger particularly criticized Spetsnaz units for not conducting enough sabotage and targeting operations and VDV units for being too large and requiring expensive specialized equipment that is not useful in the current tactical realities in Ukraine. The milblogger asserted that the Russian military will not be able to normalize command, management, and planning for major operations until it establishes clear roles for VDV, naval infantry, and Spetsnaz units. The milblogger additionally admitted that the Russian military has in practice formed light infantry units without transports for some time, despite the Russian military’s doctrinal focus on “motorized rifle” (mechanized infantry) units. ISW previously assessed that Russia’s most elite forces – VDV and Spetsnaz – are diluting their combat effectiveness and doctrinal specialties with poorly trained mobilized personnel and volunteers due to high casualties sustained in Ukraine. The milblogger’s criticism of the use of these elite forces further suggests that these units’ reputation as Russia’s elite fighting force in Ukraine is questionable.

The Russian State Duma adopted a law on April 20 that grants members of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s (DNR and LNR) Militias veterans’ status and could apply to select PMC or other irregular personnel but fails to explicitly address the status of PMC groups as legal entities. The law (adopted in its third reading) provides veteran status to members of the DNR and LNR Militias who have fought since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, as well as to personnel who served in unspecified organizations which “contribute to the tasks of the Russian Armed Forces” in Ukraine. This framing will likely allow the Kremlin to provide veteran status to select PMC personnel without recognizing the legality of PMCs like the Wagner Group, for which Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin has long campaigned. Prigozhin focused on the lack of recognition of the Wagner Group, though this law would have been an unusual way for the Kremlin to legally recognize Wagner. Prigozhin griped that unnamed Russian entities seek to “forever remove [Wagner] from the history of Russia.” Prigozhin claimed that he is happy for the DNR and LNR militiamen and that he is okay not receiving recognition until authorities eventually punish the individuals who stole Wagner’s recognition.

Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin to resolve issues at the Gukovo checkpoint on the Ukrainian-Russian border during a meeting with government officials on April 19. Putin claimed that he personally traveled through the Gukovo checkpoint, which connects Rostov and Luhansk oblasts, when returning from his recent trip to occupied Luhansk and Kherson oblasts. Putin stated that poor road conditions at the checkpoint caused a civilian backup and forced trucks delivering perishable goods to wait for hours before passing through, causing shipment delays and price increases in occupied territories. Putin added that some trucks must bypass the checkpoint entirely as the roads are too narrow and practically nonexistent. Putin called on Russian special services and law enforcement to increase the number of inspection complexes and employees at checkpoints and ordered Russian officials to improve roads around checkpoints and establish routes from Rostov-on-Don to Luhansk Oblast.

Putin’s orders indicate that Russia intends to maintain customs checkpoints with the illegally annexed eastern regions out of security concerns. ISW previously reported that Russian milbloggers complained that Russian checkpoints at the international customs line significantly slowed down Russian deliveries of ammunition to the frontlines in Donetsk Oblast. The Kremlin’s failure to implement meaningful integration policies and secure occupied Ukraine is likely undermining Russia’s ability to provision forces on the front line, as ISW has previously assessed. Putin is likely attempting to remedy the delays by expanding staffing to speed up inspections at the checkpoints and is not entertaining the possibility of removing these obstructions. Russia previously intensified security measures and inspections around the Kerch Strait Bridge, the Kremlin likely continues to use these checkpoints for similar security reasons. The Kremlin may also use these checkpoints to prevent the mass movement of men from occupied Ukraine escaping forced mobilization, to stop Russian mobilized personnel from fleeing to Russia, and to maintain Russian filtration measures. The existence of these checkpoints further highlights that Russian officials do not view the residents of occupied Ukraine as Russian nationals and are governing as the occupying power they are, despite ongoing claims the illegally annexed territories are part of Russia.

Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Uss announced his resignation on April 20, reportedly in response to an offer from Russian President Vladimir Putin to work at the federal level. The reason for Uss’ promotion is currently unclear but may be part of Putin’s efforts to strengthen control over regional officials.

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin demoted the commander of the Russian Pacific Fleet Sergei Avakyants amid an ongoing surprise readiness check that began on April 14. It is unclear if the Kremlin demoted Avakyants due to his poor performance in the ongoing rills or for other reasons.
  • A prominent Russian milblogger criticized the Russian military’s use of Russian airborne (VDV), naval infantry, and Spetsnaz forces as frontline infantry in Ukraine.
  • The Russian State Duma adopted a law granting members of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias veterans’ status which could possibly cover PMC personnel but does not formally recognize PMC formations.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin to resolve issues at the Gukovo checkpoint during a meeting with government officials, indicating continued Russian challenges integrating illegally annexed Ukrainian territory.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks in the Kreminna area.
  • Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued reconnaissance activity northwest of Svatove.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk frontline, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued defensive preparations in southern Ukraine out of concern for a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • The Kremlin may be eliminating or deprioritizing formal force structures controlled by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and permitting private military companies (PMCs) to absorb their soldiers.
  • Russian occupation authorities continue to target Ukrainian youth to consolidate societal control of occupied territories.
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