Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian Army, has recently gained an additional title being appointed as the commander of military operations in Ukraine. But should he be happy about it?
Valery Gerasimov was born in Kazan, a Turkic-majority city, in southwest Russia. As the top general, he is seen as one of President Vladimir Putin’s favourite commanders, having kept the top job in the army for more than a decade.
The general is well respected. A whole new military strategy has been named after him - Gerasimov doctrine. It’s an approach based on modern hybrid warfare, in which military capability is strategically combined with diplomatic, psychological, technological, economic and communication elements to take on the enemy.
Back in 2014, with the swift occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Gerasimov doctrine enjoyed widespread recognition, receiving much praise from the Russian political and military establishment.
But the devastating 11-month-long war against Ukraine has once again pushed Gerasimov to the front.
As an army chief, he was already the centre of the war but now he’d be on the ground among his soldiers. Since February when Russian troops marched into Ukraine, Gerasimov has kept profile away from international scrutiny.
That’s unlike Volodymyr Zelensky who - at least in official photos and handouts - has visited frontlines to boost the morale of Ukrainian soldiers.
In an unusual decision, last week, Russia’s defence ministry appointed Gerasimov to personally lead the forces in Ukraine.
“In modern warfare, the physical presence of the highest ranking military office on the battlefield is exceptional,” says Ulas Pehlivan, a former Turkish military officer and a security analyst. Because today’s conflicts’ hybrid nature empowered by advanced technology ensures real-time battle management capabilities, military leaders do not necessarily need to be on the ground, according to Pehlivan.
“Gerasimov’s appointment to the Ukraine offensive seems to me as an extraordinary and unusual decision,” Pehlivan tells TRT World.
What does it mean?
Then, might Gerasimov’s appointment as the field commander in Ukraine spell trouble for both his career and the Russian war effort?
“The Ukraine war has already tarnished the careers of many Russian generals. Could this war also spoil the legacy of the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation?” asks Abdullah Agar, a Turkish military analyst. Before Gerasimov’s appointment, three other Russian generals were assigned to oversee the Ukraine field command. They lost jobs in quick succession - each shown the door on the average of three months.
“We will see whether he will be sacrificed as well. At the end, in a war that does not go well, the gods demand sacrifices,” Agar tells TRT World. Gerasimov has replaced Sergey Surovikin, who is called the General Armageddon for his brutal tactics conducted in Syria. Now Surovikin will be one of Gerasimov’s deputies to lead the Ukraine field operations.
Since the beginning of the war, at least 8 Russian generals have been killed and hundreds of officers have lost their lives while Moscow’s total deaths have surpassed 100,000, according to the Ukrainian military.
Gerasimov used to demand from his subordinates to account for the course of the war. But now by taking the direct responsibility of the Ukraine field operations, he needs to account for his own utility to his superiors in the Kremlin, Agar says.
“If Gerasimov did happen to fail in the coming phase of military operations in Ukraine, I would have no doubt that he would be replaced,” says Gregory Simons, an associate professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University.
If Gerasimov were replaced, it would not be like his predecessors, who have received another reassignment in the military structure. Gerasimov as the country’s top general can not hope to receive another assignment in the military, facing either retirement or resignation, experts say.
Gerasimov’s appointment to the field command might have other reasons, says Agar, adding it could be a sign of Kremlin's preparations for a sweeping spring offensive.
“Could such an appointment have been made to eliminate the weaknesses in the chain of command?” he asks.
As the top commander Gerasimov will have more leverage to ensure a better coordination of Russian air, land and naval forces against Ukrainian military which is backed and armed by the Western alliance, according to Agar.
"As the most senior ranked officer, Gerasimov can mobilise much more military capability to Ukraine, which will intensify the conflict in near future and especially through the springtime," Pehlivan says.
In an escalatory move against Ukraine, Putin is expressing “his resoluteness by sending the Chief of Staff to the front," says Pehlivan. "However, Gerasimov’s appointment is not the last but one of the few remaining cards of Putin to play.” As a result, Pehlivan strongly believes that Gerasimov's overall leadership will bring "more decisive actions and less confusion to the battlefield in coming months."
Simons also thinks that due to Gerasimov's standing in the Russian military structure, his appointment demonstrates a clear sign of the Kremlin’s stabilising efforts of its military situation in Ukraine.
Wagner vs defence ministry
As Russia’s Ukraine offensive has faltered under different commanders, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, has increased his criticism of the defence ministry’s performance in the war. His mercenaries, who are paid skilled killers including freed prisoners, have taken leading roles in some critical fronts like Bakhmut at the expense of regular forces.
Some analysts believe that Gerasimov’s new assignment might be the result of a lingering infighting between Wagner and the traditional army in regard to the course of the Ukraine war, reasserting the defence ministry’s position against the mercenary group.
Gerasimov’s appointment “may also partially be a response to Wagner’s increasingly influential and public role in the war,” said Rob Lee, a researcher on Russian defense policy at King’s College London’s War Studies Department. Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst, also thought that the latest defence ministry move is “a tug-of-war between Surovikin (and his sympathisers like Prigozhin) and Gerasimov.”
Pehlivan says that by sending Gerasimov to the frontline, Moscow might aim “to restore military discipline among various military, paramilitary groups, and proxies in the battlefield.”
Despite Prigozhin’s increasing influence, Agar believes that a conventional war can not be won by irregular forces like Wagner under any circumstances. “Mercenaries might play a role in the conduct of the war, but they can’t replace the army’s divergent functions and determine the conflict’s ultimate outcome,” he says.
As a result, he believes that the Russian political establishment “won't let Wagner rise above the army.” But the Kremlin has already made critical mistakes from the very beginning and this infighting might affect Putin’s decision-making process, leading to more potential errors, he adds.
“Changing four commanders during the same war is a very risky move,” he says.
While Russia is still not losing the war as evidenced by the significant Ukrainian territory under its control, it has reached a point where it can’t back out of the conflict, something western powers can exploit, he adds.