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What Putin's shake-up of top commanders could mean for the war in Ukraine

In a move that experts say is a key shift for Russia, the Kremlin has named General Valery Gerasimov as the new overall commander of the war in Ukraine.
Mikhail Kuravlev
In a move that experts say is a key shift for Russia, the Kremlin has named General Valery Gerasimov as the new overall commander of the war in Ukraine.

Jealousy. Power struggles. Political infighting. This week's shake-up of Putin's top commander in charge of Russia's invasion in Ukraine has it all, according to some security experts.

The Kremlin has named General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of Russia's armed forces, as the new overall commander of the war – a move many security experts are saying is a key shift for Russia.

"He's their top officer. The only two people above him are the Russian defense minister and the Russian president," says Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and a former analyst on Russian military capabilities for the Pentagon. "He is an army general and he's been in the job for about ten years."

Gerasimov replaces Sergey Surovikin, who was appointed to the job only about three months ago.

What does this mean for the war going forward? Massicot shared her thoughts in an interview with NPR.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On whether this move is surprising, given the fact that Gerasimov has been among those blamed for big setbacks early in the war

It is really surprising that they're giving him another opportunity to command this war. It is rumored that he and a very small group of officials were responsible for planning the invasion, largely in secret from the rest of the military, leading to significant losses early on in material and manpower. So it's very unusual that they're giving him another go at this. It's even more unusual because General Sergey Surovkin [who Gerasimov is replacing] has not made huge mistakes in the three months that he's been in control of the overall service.

[Surovkin] was named the overall commander of the war effort in October, and he had previously led the operational group in the south down in Kherson, which was considered one of the more successful aspects of the invasion.

On the official Kremlin reasoning for this shake-up – and whether that can be believed

The official Kremlin line is that the special military operation, as they call it – they're still not calling it a war, probably for political reasons – the explanation is that the tasks are expanding and so therefore, they're going to give it to General Gerasimov because he's a higher command, and it really needs that level of oversight to ensure coordination. That's the very staid official line of what's happening here. But this is a highly unusual move to have someone as senior as him running the day to day operations of this war.

Surovkin is a very popular individual in the Russian military world. He is a very large personality. And I want to note that, you know, he's a hard man in a system that produces hard men. He has a reputation of being very brutal with his methods. He has a bit of a following because he gets results because he's brutal with his methods. So he is popular among the troops. He's popular among Russian mercenary groups. With all this popularity – and people at the same time critiquing Russian military leadership for all of their mistakes – I think there's some sort of rival camp situation going on behind the scenes and maybe that's come to a head. I'm not sure the timing of all of this. There's certainly been no large mistake that we can point to that suggests that, oh, that's easily why he was demoted or relieved of command. There's not anything like that. So it's to me, it's just a political issue.

On what this move says about possible desperation within the Kremlin

To me, it seems like they have been a little adrift strategically, not really knowing where they go from here. They've taken so many losses in their army, they've tried to mobilize to recover some of their manpower issues. And that is happening. But again, when I look at the Russians front line and what they have to use, I don't really see a force that's truly capable of a large-scale offensive that would be successful. They could try, but I just don't think that they have the raw materials to do it. And so it could very well be that this leadership change is casting about a bit for a way forward that will work.

On the pressures General Gerasimov may be facing as he takes command

The fighting around Bakhmut, Soledar has just been raging for months. There's also some infighting going on, where Russian mercenaries Yevgeny Prigozhin, who runs the Wagner group, has claimed that his group is responsible for taking Soledar, and the military wasn't really helping them. And the military, interestingly, came out on their social media and disputed that fact. So this is there's some tensions going on here about who owns the success and who doesn't. In the overall context here of how this is going for them to talk about, we've taken Bakhmut, we've taken Soledar. These are destroyed small towns now. They have been subjected to excessive shelling, so many thousands of rounds of artillery fire. For that to be claimed is a success, I think tells you a lot about where the Russian operation is, at this point. It's kind of struggling.

On the concerns that a desperate Putin might escalate and use tactical nuclear or chemical weapons and whether General Gerasimov's command might help

My concerns about escalation are this: even though Gerasimov has always been the number one official throughout the entire war, by demoting a voice like Surovkin and others who may believe in a different way forward for the Russian army, if that order were to come down, "we're losing. I don't have options. I need something quick, something serious," I don't think that Gerasimov and [Sergei Shoigu, Russia's defense minister] are the ones that will stand up and say no. I just don't think they're wired that way. I think we can look at their ten years in the job. They are yes men. And so I do worry about that. But there's several steps in the escalation ladder before those kinds of things start to happen. But overall, yes, I don't think that they would be an independent voice to say no.

Adapted for the web by Mallory Yu

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ashley Brown
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.