January 11, 2023

Putin appoints Gerasimov theater commander in Ukraine war

Institute for the Study of War

Gerasimov’s appointment as theater commander likely advances two Kremlin efforts: an attempt to improve Russian command and control for a decisive military effort in 2023, and a political move to strengthen the Russian MoD against challenges from the Russian millbloggers and siloviki, such as Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, who have criticized the Kremlin’s conduct of the war.

Gerasimov’s appointment is likely intended to support an intended decisive Russian military effort in 2023, likely resumed Russian offensive operations. Putin has repeatedly demonstrated he misunderstands the capabilities of Russian forces and has not abandoned his maximalist war aims in Ukraine. Putin may have appointed Gerasimov, the highest-ranking officer in the Russian military, to succeed a series of theater commanders to oversee a major offensive that Putin—likely incorrectly—believes Russian forces can accomplish in 2023. ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces appear to be preparing for a decisive military effort, possibly in Luhansk Oblast.[5] ISW has also forecasted a most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) of a new Russian invasion of Ukraine from Belarus into northern Ukraine, though this remains a worst-case scenario within the forecast cone.[6] Ongoing Russian force generation efforts are likely intended to support some form of further offensive operations, and Gerasimov, who approved and did not push back on Russia’s disastrous February 2022 war plan, is unlikely to begin resisting Putin now.[7] Putin may alternatively (or additionally) perceive the threat of further Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in 2023 and intend for Gerasimov to strengthen Russian forces against these likely attacks.

The elevation of Gerasimov and the Russian MoD over Surovikin, a favorite of Prigozhin and the siloviki faction, is additionally highly likely to have been in part a political decision to reassert the primacy of the Russian MoD in an internal Russian power struggle. The Russian MoD and the siloviki faction, often most publicly represented by Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, have feuded throughout 2022 on Russia’s conduct of the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin has increasingly criticized the Russian MoD’s conduct of the war since late 2022.[8] Igor Girkin, former commander of Russian militants in Donbas and a prominent milblogger heavily implied that he would support the removal of Russian President Vladimir Putin from office in his most direct criticism of Putin to date on January 10.[9] Surovikin, the previous theater commander in Ukraine, was a public favorite of Prigozhin, and Ukrainian intelligence reported Surovikin is a rival of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.[10] It is unclear why Putin implicitly demoted Surovikin in favor of Gerasimov, unlike previously replaced Russian theater commanders who were blamed for battlefield setbacks. Gerasimov’s elevation is likely in part a political move to weaken the influence of the broadly anti-MoD siloviki faction and a signal for Prigozhin and other actors to reduce their criticism of the MoD.

Putin’s elevation of Gerasimov and the highly criticized Russian MoD may prompt siloviki like Prigozhin to further carve up the Russian information space and push back on the Kremlin’s conduct of the war, however. Prigozhin has relentlessly promoted the Wagner Group at the expense of the Russian MoD’s reputation and may double down on his flashy advertisements on Russian social media and state-affiliated outlets to assert the superiority of his forces.[11] Gerasimov’s centralizing efforts will additionally likely face resistance from Prigozhin and other actors eager to retain their private stakes in the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin may have known of Putin’s decision to reappoint these commanders and attempted to preempt this news by amplifying information about Wagner’s efforts to seize Soledar in the past several days to claim a victory.[12] Putin’s decision to elevate the MoD may also signal Putin’s departure from attempts to appease siloviki-affiliated milbloggers in an effort to regain control over the dominant narrative. ISW will continue to monitor the sentiment among different milblogger factions regarding their ability to criticize the Russian MoD or Russian military commanders.

Gerasimov is unlikely to rapidly revitalize and reform Russia’s conduct of the war in Ukraine to achieve Putin’s maximalist objectives. Gerasimov signed off on Putin’s fundamentally flawed initial invasion plans before February 24 and largely faded into obscurity following the collapse of Russia’s flawed initial planning assumptions. Gerasimov is highly unlikely to successfully meet Putin’s unrealistic expectations for his performance. The Russian MoD announcement of the command restructure did not specify how the command chain under Gerasimov will function other than to name Gerasimov’s three “subordinates” and the Russian command structure will likely remain fractured without a considerable pause to adjust Russia’s conduct of the war. Gerasimov will likely preside over a disorganized command structure plagued by endemic, persistent, and self-reinforcing failures that he largely set into motion in his initial role before the invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian defense industrial base’s inability to address munitions shortages will likely hinder the ability of Russian forces to sustain offensive operations in eastern Ukraine in 2023. US and Ukrainian officials told CNN on January 10 that Russia’s daily rate of artillery fire has decreased in some areas by 75%, a historic low since the start of the Russian full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.[13] These officials noted that Russian forces may be rationing artillery shells as a result of dwindling supplies, or could be reassessing their tactics. Spokesperson for the Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces Serhiy Cherevaty stated that Russian forces previously depleted their reserves of 122mm and 152mm artillery shells and other reserves over the summer of 2022 under an assumption that excessive artillery fire would lead to faster results.[14] Cherevaty noted that Russian forces must now transfer additional shells from rear areas in Russia and purchase additional munitions from foreign countries to counteract such shortages, resulting in a reduced rate of fire. Cherevaty added that Ukrainian strikes against Russian ammunition depots and logistics have also inhibited Russia’s ability to unload munitions close to the frontlines, reducing the intensity of Russia’s artillery fire.[15]

Russian sources are increasingly also acknowledging that Russia’s ammunition and supply shortages are decisively impeding the ability of Russian forces to advance. A prominent Russian milblogger (and member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mobilization working group) stated on a federal TV program that Russian force generation efforts such as mobilization are not sufficient, noting that Russia’s success on the frontlines is contingent upon its economy and military-industrial complex.[16] ISW had previously assessed that the Kremlin’s force generation campaigns are unlikely to decisively affect the course of the war unless Russia addresses its fundamental problems with supplying its war effort in Ukraine. Russian forces achieved some victories in the first stages of the invasion due to Russia’s rapid use of its manpower and reliance on artillery superiority, and the Kremlin’s inability to replace expended personnel and munitions may further undermine its ability to wage protracted combat.

Russian forces have not yet fully captured Soledar despite recent Russian advances, and the possible capture of Soledar is unlikely to enable Russian forces to capture Bakhmut. ISW assesses that Russian forces have not yet captured Soledar, despite numerous claims from Russian sources.[17] Russian claims about Russian advances in Soledar continue to generate discussion amongst Russian sources about the likelihood of Russian forces capturing Bakhmut.[18] Some Russian sources have begun discussing an implausible collapse of the current Ukrainian frontline and a Ukrainian retreat as far back as Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.[19] The Russian discussion about the imminent capture of Bakhmut and the collapse of Ukrainian defensive lines are divorced from the current operational reality in the Bakhmut area, where Russian forces remain far from severing Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) needed to encircle Bakhmut.[20] Russian offensive operations to capture Bakhmut have likely culminated due to degraded operational capabilities.[21]

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly issued secret and preemptive pardons to Russian convicts fighting with the Wagner Group in Ukraine, potentially further empowering Wagner to operate with impunity in the theater. Russian Human Rights Council member Eva Merkacheva told Russian outlet RIA Novosti on January 9 that prisoners recruited by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group to fight in Ukraine receive pardons before they are released from penal colonies for deployment.[22] Under the Russian Criminal Code and Article 89 of the Russian Constitution, only the Russian President may issue a pardon.[23] Merkacheva stated that the presidential decree on pardoning convicts who participated in combat in Ukraine contains information that is classified as an official state secret per existing Russian legislation.[24] Prigozhin earlier announced pardons for the first group of Wagner Group returnees on January 5, and ISW noted at the time that Prigozhin has no legal authority under Russian constitutional or criminal law to grant such pardons himself.[25] However, the existence of the secret presidential pardons suggests that Prigozhin announced the pardons for merely performative reasons, to continue to promote the Wagner Group, and to legitimate its recruitment practices.

Preemptive presidential pardons are likely further driving Wagner Group recruitment within penal colonies and empowering Wagner Group fighters to operate with a large degree of impunity in Ukraine. The promise of a legal pardon for criminal activity likely incentivizes convicts to sign contracts with the Wagner Group, knowing that if they survive operations in Ukraine, they will be released back into Russian society following their deployment with clean records. ISW has previously observed that Wagner Group fighters recruited from prisons are deployed to the frontline in Ukraine chiefly as an expendable attritional force, and often show incredibly lax discipline in the theater. A Russian milblogger circulated imagery on January 10 of Wagner Group fighters in Soledar wearing Ukrainian uniforms in what likely constitutes a resort to perfidy in violation of international law.[26] Wagner continues to build out its reputation as a brutal and attritional fighting force through instances such as this apparent war crime, and Prigozhin is likely empowering Wagner Group forces to continue similar conduct in the expectation that if they survive, they will return to Russia as free and respected men and without accruing further criminal records through actions in Ukraine. Putin’s guarantee of a legal carte blanche for Wagner Group fighters will likely allow Prigozhin to use the promise of a pardon to drive recruitment efforts, therefore lending more untrained and unprofessional personnel as an attritional force that often perpetrates atrocities.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated that a renewed Russian offensive operation from Belarus remains highly unlikely. Zelensky stated during a coordination meeting on the security of Ukraine’s northwestern borders on January 11 that Ukraine does not see any inflections in Belarus “apart from strong statements.”[27] Zelensky noted that Ukraine needs to prepare its northwestern borders and regions on the Ukraine-Belarus border for any situation. The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Ukraine had not observed any formation of assault groups in Belarus on January 11, after deviating from its normal reporting pattern on Russian forces in Belarus on January 10.[28] ISW continues to assess that a renewed invasion of northern Ukraine possibly aimed at Kyiv remains unlikely.

Key Takeaways

  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on January 11 that Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov will take over as theater commander as part of a major reshuffle of the Russian command structure for the war in Ukraine.
  • Gerasimov’s appointment is likely intended to support an intended decisive Russian military effort in 2023, likely in the form of resumed Russian offensive operations.
  • The elevation of Gerasimov and the Russian MoD over Surovikin, a favorite of Prigozhin and the siloviki faction, is additionally highly likely to have been in part a political decision to reassert the primacy of the Russian MoD in an internal Russian power struggle.
  • Gerasimov will likely preside over a disorganized command structure plagued by endemic, persistent, and self-reinforcing failures that he largely set into motion in his initial role before the invasion of Ukraine.
  • The Russian defense industrial base’s inability to address munitions shortages will likely hinder the ability of Russian forces to sustain offensive operations in eastern Ukraine in 2023.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated that a renewed Russian offensive operation from Belarus remains highly unlikely.
  • Russian forces have not yet fully captured Soledar despite recent Russian advances, and the possible capture of Soledar is unlikely to enable Russian forces to capture Bakhmut.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly issued secret and preemptive pardons to Russian convicts fighting with the Wagner Group in Ukraine, potentially further empowering Wagner to operate with impunity in the theater.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks near Svatove as Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations near Kreminna and struck rear areas in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian claims about Wagner Group and conventional Russian military formations’ operations in the Soledar area likely reflect competing claims over the responsibility for the most recent notable Russian tactical advances in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks across the Donetsk Oblast frontline.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces are withdrawing key assets and restructuring logistics networks in southern Ukraine due to Ukrainian strikes.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced a plan to improve the Russian defense industrial base.
Share the Post: