Putinism doesn’t work in the battlefield

The latest reshuffle in the Russian army shows Russian generals struggle to meet Putin’s unrealistic expectations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin awards General Sergei Surovikin, commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, with the Order of St. George, Third Class, at the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don, Russia December 31, 2022. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Russian President Vladimir Putin awards General Sergei Surovikin, commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, with the Order of St George, Third Class, at the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don, Russia on December 31, 2022 [File: Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters]

On January 11, the Russian defence ministry announced that Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov is now heading the Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. General Sergei Surovikin who had been appointed to the same position just three months earlier was demoted to Gerasimov’s deputy. The reshuffle sparked speculations about frustration in the Kremlin with the lack of progress on the battlefield.

Ironically enough, Surovikin had been recognised by Russian and Ukrainian combatants alike as one of the more competent of Moscow’s commanders. He considered holding on to the isolated city of Kherson as a lost cause and managed to persuade President Vladimir Putin to allow him to abandon it. This is despite the fact that the president wanted the city to remain under Russian control. Even though a withdrawal under fire is a difficult operation to conduct, Surovikin managed it neatly and with limited casualties.

At another flashpoint – the city of Bakhmut, where severe fighting was going on – Surovikin concentrated on consolidation. He established the so-called “Surovikin lines” of defence to the south and prepared the ground for the influx of mobilised reservists expected before an offensive this year. He also oversaw the ruthless bombardments of Ukraine’s energy and water infrastructure, as much a political as economic campaign, intended to demoralise the population, force a diversion of resources and perhaps drive more refugees into Europe.

Indeed, he appeared relatively competent. It was not enough for Putin, though. Surovikin’s cautious approach was not bringing victory on the battlefield, nor were the Ukrainians losing their will to resist.

The last straw seems to have been the Ukrainian missile attack on a barracks outside Makiivka on New Year’s Day, in which hundreds of Russian reservists may have been killed. It was hardly Surovikin’s direct responsibility, rather it was more a symptom of incompetence on the part of a Russian officer corps that cannot come to terms with the range and precision of Ukrainian artillery.

Nonetheless, Putin wanted a scapegoat, and Surovikin was it. In many ways,  this episode illustrates the degree to which Russian warfighting is being defined and distorted by politics.

Putin’s whole political system is deliberately competitive and even cannibalistic. Individuals and institutions are encouraged to clash, because this allows Putin to exercise the role of the “great decider”. Everyone has to seek his favour and he can pick and choose whom to reward, and whom to punish, to maintain his power.

What may work in politics, though, is proving much more dysfunctional when translated to the battlefield. Surovikin was given the title of joint forces commander, but Putin never gave him the necessary political backing to allow him to wield all the disparate elements under his command as one unified force. In particular, he had no control over the personal troops of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and, above all, the Wagner mercenary army under businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin.

This undermined any chances of Surovikin being able to make gains on the battlefield. For this, he had to pay the price, because a second aspect of Putinism which has proven so problematic is an emphasis on the “heroic leader” able instantly to turn a problem into a triumph. Encouraged by his entourage of cronies and yes-men, Putin seems to have convinced himself that he is such an instantly transformative leader. That is deeply questionable, as whatever goes right is presented as his achievement, but whatever goes wrong is blamed on the failures of his underlings.

The more stress Putin is under, the more unrealistic his expectations are. Last week, for example, loyal industry minister Denis Manturov was publicly upbraided for delays in the domestic production of aircraft. As Manturov tried to explain the formidable practical challenges, especially now that Russia is sanctioned and denied Western technology and investment and cannot buy some parts from Ukraine, Putin cut him off: “Don’t you understand the circumstances we live in? It needs to be done in a month, no later.”

Likewise, Putin – who has no meaningful military experience and little sense of the complexities of modern warfare – appears to have had unrealistic expectations of Surovikin. His answer, as usual, is not to recognise the scale of the challenge, but to blame the man on the spot. While Surovikin remains in place, he is now just one of three field commanders under their new joint commander: General Gerasimov.

Although the official line is that this was not a demotion of Surovikin, simply a recognition that the growing scale of the role required a more senior commander, the irony is that this is in effect a demotion not just for him but also for Gerasimov. It is very unusual for a chief of the General Staff to step into a field role and this also places him in an unenviable position.

It has long been clear that the Russians plan to launch new offensives early this year, using 150,000 mobilised reservists who have been preparing behind the lines. This is a substantial force, but given that the Ukrainians have also been regrouping, armed with new supplies of Western weapons, the odds of the Russians being able to make lasting and substantial gains are low.

Gerasimov’s career now presumably depends on not failing to meet Putin’s high hopes, so his temptation may be to escalate. Although there are periodic fears that Russia may use tactical nuclear weapons, this is still extremely unlikely. It is more credible that Moscow will try to pressure Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko to join the war or that Russia’s forces will be expanded further through a new wave of mobilisations or else with conscripts.

These are essentially political decisions above Gerasimov’s pay grade, though. Lukashenko is clearly very reluctant to be directly involved. As for a new mobilisation or deploying conscripts – who have, up to now, largely not fought, these measures would be extremely unpopular at home. Although Putin is overseeing a creeping militarisation of Russian society and economy, he is also clearly aware of the potential risks to a regime whose legitimacy is on the decline. Indeed, part of the reason behind demoting Surovikin was to try and use him as a scapegoat for recent reversals.

Likewise, although Gerasimov’s appointment was also heralded as a way of improving coordination, unless Putin is willing to lay down the law with Kadyrov or Prigozhin, nothing will change in the field. Prigozhin has already made his contempt for Gerasimov clear, with no pushback from the Kremlin.

Thus, Gerasimov is the latest and highest-profile officer to be given a task he cannot achieve unless Putin is willing to take a political risk and provide him with the necessary support. So long as the ageing Russian leader is unwilling to back his generals, it is hard to see how Gerasimov can succeed. Yet he is the senior officer in the Russian military – and Surovikin was his most likely successor. If and when he also fails, it will be all the harder for people not to pin the ultimate responsibility on the commander-in-chief, Vladimir Putin.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.