Shuffling the Commanders — New SMO Commander the Chief of General Staff Gerasimov is Replacing Surovikin

The official reason given by the MoD is quite nonsensical, as usual. The statement goes:

Russian Defence Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu makes new appointments to leadership of special military operation

Chief of General Staff General of the Army Valery Gerasimov has been assigned the commander of the Joint Group of Forces.

The deputy commanders are: Commander-in-Chief of Aerospace Forces General of the Army Sergei Surovikin, Commander-in-Chief of the Land Forces General of the Army Oleg Salyukov, as well as Deputy Chief of General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Colonel General Aleksey Kim.

The increase in the level of leadership of the special military operation is related to the amplified range of tasks, the necessity of closer cooperation between services and branches of the Armed Forces, as well as of improving the quality of all types of maintenance and efficiency of commanding the groups of forces.

So, the reasons given are: amplified range of tasks, closer cooperation between services and branches, and improving the quality of … maintenance and efficiency of command.

We don’t know the range of tasks MoD has in this war, so we cannot judge if this range was somehow “amplified”. Since the very start, the main task was the neutralization of the Ukrainian military to the point of destruction or surrender. Is now the scope of the “special military operation” increased to include other militaries (like Poland, for example)? Or maybe Russian military now will start shooting down NATO spy satellites, providing the UA with targeting date on Russian military? Or maybe the neutralization of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is no more a single task, but also elimination of the political leadership, or maybe destruction of the Ukrainian civilian infrastructure? We don’t know, but in all probability nothing of this kind happened, and the “range of task” remained the same, and this is just a smartly sounding way of saying nothing at all.

“Closer cooperation between services and branches”. Here we first should understand that the only branches, “actively participating” in the SMO are Ground Forces and the Air Force. Since Surovikin was given command of the entire Ukrainian front, he already has all the authority he needs for commanding his ground and air forces. And, until recently, serving as the commander of the Russian Air Force, he should have enough competency and authority for the very limited scope of operations, conducted by the Air Force in the war. The only branches which are currently reside outside of his authority are the Navy (which is useless as usual for Russian wars), and the long-range strategic aviation, which isn’t exactly a separate branch from the Air Force, but enjoys a lot of autonomy, being one of the strategic deterrence forces components. Yet, it is quite clear, the deep strikes conducted by the airborne or naval cruise missiles are executed not by the SMO commander, but by the General Staff anyway. And regarding all the other services which are involved indirectly in the SMO, like, for example, the mobilization or supply efforts, it is outside of the scope of the operational command. So, no real and obvious advantage in “closer cooperation” will come from this reshuffle. In fact, increasing the chain of command always makes the cooperation less effective.

“Improving the quality of … maintenance and efficiency of commanding the groups of forces”. I don’t see how Gerasimov taking direct command will improve the quality of maintenance. Regarding the “”efficiency of commanding the groups of forces”, it seems to me, this is a roundabout way of saying Surovikin isn’t good at combined arms operations. He may be good enough for Syria, but not for Ukraine. This is bringing me to the next theory.

Rybar Telegram channel reposted a commentary regarding the internal dynamics of the MoD power plays. It says, Surovikin and Gerasimov are at odds since 2017, and the reason for their bad blood is due to the efforts for Surovikin to replace Gerasimov as Chief of General Staff. I have no idea if it’s accurate or true at all. But if it is, it might explain why Surovikin was put in command during the peak of Russian military implosion in UA. He commanded the retreat from Kharkov, pulling the remaining forces from the encirclement, with only few hundreds Russian and allied soldiers captured during the retreat. As disastrous as this whole affair was, he managed to minimize the damage done, or at least didn’t make things much worse. Under his command the retreat from right-bank Kherson commenced, another disaster what seemed to be inevitable, and could have resulted in much greater casualties. This allowed Russia to stabilize the front, and to stop the Ukrainian unhindered advance forward. So, he acted as a crisis manager of sorts. Which means he was deemed disposable, and in the same time he was willing to take that risk. Gerasimov didn’t seem eager to take direct responsibility for the war then, even though it might have been much more critical time that now. The “efficiency of command” didn’t bother him that much, it seems. Now, then the situation has improved to the point the entire Russian military grouping is no longer in the immediate danger of a catastrophic collapse, Gerasimov seems willing to put his name behind the war effort.

Another reason that I didn’t see anyone mentioned, but which seems to me to be the most obvious one, is that Russian military is preparing the next big offensive, which would benefit from a more experienced commander, capable of strategic thinking. Gerasimov, due to his status as the Chief of General Staff, is the most strategically educated and competent planner. At least this is how it should be. If so, he, heading the planning and execution of the operation directly, makes sense.

Another point to consider, is Surovikin’s record as SMO commander. He had no great successes, which he could hardly be blamed for, but he did have some debacles. The first one is of course the Makeevka. He wasn’t directly responsible, but he was responsible nether the less. It was his job, among many other responsibilities, to make sure such things wouldn’t happen. Either he gave no instructions to his subordinates to take appropriate measures to prevent such occurrences, or he gave such instructions, but they were ignored, which means he failed to control his commanders to execute his orders. In either way he is not entirely blameless. The second debacle is the attacks on the Engels airbase. As a commander of Russian Air Force up until recently, he is indirectly responsible for the RuAF’s failure in its main responsibility, which is the country’s air defence. Unlike NATO air forces, Soviet and Russian air force is mainly tasked to provide air defence of the country. If the Western most capable fighter jets are “air superiority fighters” (e.g. F-15, F-22), then the Soviet/Russian ones are “air-defence fighters” or “interceptor fighter” (e.g. Su-27, MiG-31). This is the basic difference in doctrine of their respective doctrines, regarding the main purpose of their air forces. Strikes on Engels were, arguably, the worst debacle of the entire war. And Surovikin, as the recent commander of the Russian Air Force (which includes the air-defence forces as well), is at least partially responsible.

It is also possible, the shuffle comes not from the General Staff, but from Shoigu or Rasputin (the only ones that could force Gerasimov’s hand on the matter). For what reasons — I couldn’t say. But in my opinion, the most probable reason for this reshuffle is the next large offensive initiative by Russia in near future, most probably in February. If so, we would start to see some movements soon.

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