January 10, 2023

Russia appoints disgraced General Lapin to head Russian Army Ground Forces

Institute for the Study of War

Russian media reported on January 10 that Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin, former commander of the Central Military District (CMD) and Russian forces in eastern Kharkiv and northern Donetsk oblasts, has been appointed Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces. Russian outlet URA, citing unidentified Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) sources, reported that Lapin took over from Colonel General Vasily Tonkoshkurov as Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces on January 9.[1] It is unclear why Tonkoshkurov was removed from this position and what his next role will be. While official Kremlin and MoD sources have not confirmed the claim, it was widely circulated and responded to as fact among military commentators in the Russian information space.[2] Lapin’s appointment is notably to the position of Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces (also known as the Russian Army), not the Russian Armed Forces as a whole. Army General Valery Gerasimov likely remains Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. The Chief of Staff of the Russian Army is not a frontline command position, and while Lapin’s specific duties (in the currently fragmented Russian command structure) are unclear, he is unlikely to directly command troops in Ukraine.

Lapin’s previous role as commander of the “Central” group of Russian forces in Ukraine and commander of the Russian Central Military District (CMD) was checkered with controversy following the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that retook large swaths of territory in eastern Kharkiv and northern Donetsk oblasts in September 2022. The Russian MoD confirmed Lapin’s appointment as commander of the “Central” grouping on June 24, 2022, and noted he was responsible for operations in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area and likely the broader Luhansk-Donetsk Oblast border area.[3] Lapin went on to receive a “Hero of Russia” medal on July 4 for his role in the Russian capture of Lysychansk.[4] Lapin was also the commander responsible for Lyman, Donetsk Oblast, and received strong criticism from prominent voices in the Russian information space for his claimed responsibility for massive Russian losses following successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in mid-September of 2022 that pushed Russian forces to the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border.[5] Following the disastrous Russian loss of most of Kharkiv Oblast and the critical settlement of Lyman, the Kremlin reportedly removed Lapin from both command of the “Central” grouping and CMD.[6] The pro-war information space’s response to Lapin’s perceived command failures served as a catalyst for a fracture between a faction led by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin—the siloviki—and the Russian MoD establishment that milbloggers widely claimed Lapin represented.[7] Kadyrov’s staunch and pointed criticism of Lapin at the time demonstrated that the siloviki faction saw itself as fundamentally at odds with the conventional Russian MoD and associated elements.[8]

Lapin’s appointment as army Chief of Staff may be intended to serve as a counterbalance to the growing prominence of the siloviki. Prigozhin and Kadyrov both have largely private armed forces at their disposal (Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters and Prigozhin’s Wagner Group) and are capitalizing on the gains made by these forces to promote themselves politically, as ISW has frequently reported.[9] As the anti-Russian MoD voices gain more relevance and support throughout the Russian pro-war information space, which perceives this faction as generally more competent, motivated, and effective than the Russian MoD, Russian military leadership may seek to rehabilitate and bolster Lapin’s reputation to establish the Russian MoD as a competent and structured wartime apparatus and balance out the growing influence of the Kadyrov-Prigozhin faction. Additionally, considering that the Chief of Staff of the Russian Army is more of a logistical and organizational oversight role than a command position, the Russian MoD may be using Lapin’s appointment to posture a commitment to the sound structuring of Russian ground forces in response to continued criticisms of the efficacy of the Russian army. While the Kremlin has at times distanced itself and even blamed the Russian MoD for military failures in Ukraine, the Kremlin likely maintains a vested interest in bolstering public perceptions of the MoD’s efficacy. The Russian military apparatus writ large likely benefits from the public perception that it is an appropriately managed wartime instrument. ISW has previously reported on the Kremlin’s attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of the Russian MoD and affiliated elements, including prior efforts to rehabilitate Lapin’s reputation.[10]

Lapin’s appointment may alternatively suggest that the Russian MoD increasingly must fill important leadership positions with previously disgraced—or at minimum heavily publicly criticized—general officers. Former Russian Eastern Military District (EMD) commander Colonel-General Alexander Chaiko, who led failed Russian efforts to take Kyiv in the early stages of the war, went on to serve as commander of Russian Armed Forces in Syria after he was replaced following the Kharkiv counteroffensive.[11] Colonel General Andrei Serdyukov, former commander of the Russian airborne forces (VDV) who was reportedly dismissed due to the poor performance of Russian paratroopers, now appears to have replaced Chaiko as commander of the Russian grouping in Syria.[12] The Russian MoD appears to be using previously disgraced and unpopular general officers to fill other, non-frontline command roles, suggesting that there is a systemic lack of general officers more suited to these positions.

The news of Lapin’s appointment generated further schisms in the already-fragmented pro-war Russian information space. Former militant commander and prominent milblogger Igor Girkin stated that Lapin’s new role must be a “misunderstanding” because Russian forces under Lapin’s command suffered major losses in Kharkiv Oblast.[13] Girkin concluded that Lapin represents a “boorish” attempt by the MoD to demonstrate their invulnerability.[14] A Wagner Group-affiliated Telegram group claimed that Lapin was also responsible for the disastrous May 5, 2022, Bilohorivka river crossing and additionally blamed Lapin for the loss of Lyman.[15] Other milbloggers responded more neutrally or even positively, with one suggesting that it was not Lapin but Lieutenant General Roman Berdnikov who was responsible for the loss of Lyman.[16] A pro-Kremlin milblogger credited Lapin with stabilizing the front after the collapse of Russian operations in Kharkiv Oblast.[17] The lack of consensus on who commanded the Lyman front among the Russian milblogger community further indicates the convoluted state of the Russian chain of command. Lapin’s new role will likely further the divide between the siloviki and affiliated milbloggers and milbloggers who have historically been more favorable to the Kremlin and the Russian MoD. This decision will likely open to Russian MoD to more criticism of its intentions and capabilities instead of addressing these concerns. 

Russian forces have not captured the entirety of Soledar despite several false Russian claims that the city has fallen and that Bakhmut risks imminent encirclement. Several Russian sources claimed that Wagner Group forces advanced into the west of Soledar on January 10.[18] Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin refuted these claims, remarking that Wagner Group forces are still fighting against concerted Ukrainian resistance.[19] ISW has only observed visual confirmation of Wagner Group forces in central Soledar as of January 10.[20] The reality of block-by-block control of terrain in Soledar is obfuscated by the dynamic nature of urban combat, however, and Russian forces have largely struggled to make significant tactical gains in the Soledar area for months. Even taking the most generous Russian claims at face value, the capture of Soledar would not portend an immediate encirclement of Bakhmut. Control of Soledar will not necessarily allow Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) into Bakhmut, as ISW has previously assessed.[21]

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, his most direct criticism of Putin to date. Girkin criticized Putin for appointing and refusing to remove Russian military leaders who oversee frequent and disastrous military failures, in reference to Lapin’s appointment.[22] Russian milbloggers have historically criticized Russian military leaders and MoD officials while upholding Putin as an effective wartime leader, as ISW has previously reported.[23] Girkin extended his criticisms to non-military Putin appointees and advisors whose decisions negatively impacted Russia’s war performance and effort, noting that the common factor between these leaders is Putin’s decision to appoint them.[24] Girkin caveated his criticisms with an implied loyalty to the Russian state, softening his call for Putin to leave office by stating he is against a change of presidential leadership during the war, as it would lead to military and civil “catastrophe.”[25] Girkin’s criticisms, which he said he hopes will spark change even if they have “suicidal” consequences, indicate that growing frustration with the state of the war may be reaching a boiling point after nearly a year of hostilities among some milbloggers, prompting some milbloggers to reduce their self-censorship.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian media reported on January 10 that Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin, former commander of the Central Military District and Russian forces in Kharkiv and northern Donetsk oblasts during Russia’s significant losses in September 2022, has been appointed Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces.
  • The news of Lapin’s appointment is generating further schisms in the already-fragmented pro-war Russian information space.
  • Igor Girkin heavily implied that he would support the removal of Russian President Vladimir Putin from office, suggesting that a willingness to reduce self-censorship and directly criticize Putin may be growing among some milbloggers.
  • The Ukrainian General Staff deviated from its normal reporting pattern about Russian forces in Belarus and near Ukraine’s northern border on January 10, an indicator of possible Russian preparations for an offensive in northern Ukraine, though ISW assesses this course of action remains unlikely at this time.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to make gains along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks across the Donetsk Oblast frontline and made gains around Soledar but have not captured the settlement, despite false claims.
  • The Kremlin continues to deny that Russian authorities are preparing for another wave of partial mobilization.
  • Russian occupation authorities are struggling to contain an effective partisan movement in occupied territories.
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