Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has removed several top military commanders from their positions due to “poor performances” in the Ukraine War, according to British intelligence officials on Thursday.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense described “a culture of cover-ups and scapegoating” that might keep more Russian officers “distracted by efforts to avoid personal culpability for Russia’s operational set-backs.”
Lt. Gen. Serhiy Kisel, who commanded Russia’s elite 1st Guards Tank Army, has been suspended for his failure to capture Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. Vice Adm. Igor Osipov, who commanded Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, has also likely been suspended following the sinking of the fleet’s flagship, Moskva, in April. Gen. Valeriy Gerasimov, the Russian military’s chief of the general staff, likely remains in his post, but it was unclear whether he retains the confidence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the ministry.
The failure at Kharkiv is telling. Russian troops never managed to take or even surround Ukraine’s second-largest city despite its proximity to the Russian border and Russia’s military logistics hub at Belgorod. Over the last two weeks, the Ukraine Army has pushed the Russians almost fully out of the Kharkiv Oblast (region), in some locations all the way back to the border.
Russia abandoned the Battle of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, at the end of March. Soldiers removed from fighting there have been reinforcing the effort to take the rest of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, according to multiple sources. Seven weeks later, Russia has yet to make much additional progress in Donbas.
That’s not to say everything is going swimmingly for Ukraine.
Earlier this week, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiyy described the conditions in the Donbas as “hell” and said the industrialized and resource-rich region had been “completely destroyed” by the fighting.
Down south, after weeks of delays and heavy fighting, Russian forces appear to have almost entirely eliminated Ukrainian resistance at the massive Azovstal plant in Mariupol. The city — along with the cash-cow steel plant — has been so badly destroyed that Russia announced it will transform it from an industrial area to a resort town.
There are plenty of resort towns on the Black Sea. Massive steel plants are a bit harder to come by. Azovstal had employed more than 12,000 people at the single facility and had been a big earner of foreign currency.
Russia used to be a lot better at the whole spoils of war thing.
On Monday, retired Russian Army Colonel Mikhail Khodaryonok warned — on Russian state television, if you can believe that — that things “will get worse” for Russia.
He added Russia’s position on the world stage is no better, claiming the country is in “full geopolitical isolation”. He also warned Russia not to engage in conflict with Finland, which has recently announced plans to join NATO.
“Much as we would hate to admit this, virtually the entire world is against us,” Khodaryonok said.
“We shouldn’t take ‘information tranquilizers,’ because sometimes information is spread about some moral or psychological breakdown of Ukraine’s armed forces, which are allegedly on the verge of some kind of crisis in morale,” Khodaryonok said. “All of that, to put mildly, is false.”
Two days later, perhaps after a gentle warning, Khodaryonok reversed course with almost-comic effect.
“When a country buys Western-made equipment, sometimes it malfunctions or stops working, right in the middle of the battle,” he said Thursday on Russia’s notoriously monitored state media. “Our arms we supply to our buyers are different in their reliability, you get exactly the weapons described.”
“Alex, I’ll take ‘Things No One Said About Russian vs Western Weapons EVER’ for $400.”
Khodaryonok went on to say that “The Russian Federation is yet to utilize even one-tenth of its military-economic potential.” Russia is believed to have sent about 75% of its combat power to Ukraine and lost perhaps a quarter of it to combat, fatigue, and maintenance failures.
Any replacements Russia musters will likely be less well-trained and less-well equipped, simply due to the stresses of war and the bite of sanctions.
What’s the big picture?
Though much less effective than advertised, the Russian armed forces can still cause a lot of death and destruction. Manpower and logistical limitations, however, prevent them from advancing very far or in more than one direction at a time. The retreats from Kyiv and Kharkiv are the result of these very real limits.
The Ukraine armed forces have fought beyond most expectations, particularly in their ability to inflict damage on those parts of the Russian military that can afford it the least. Retired Australian Army General Mick Ryan describes how Ukraine has focused on Russia’s “communications networks, logistic supply routes, rear areas, artillery and senior commanders in their command posts” to devastating effect.
But Ukraine has yet to demonstrate that they can force the Russian troops out of areas where Moscow chooses to remain strong.
That’s a recipe for a long, hard slog that benefits no one and risks escalation to a broader conflict.
I know I keep saying this, but it’s time for the Biden Administration to stop yammering about regime change and pressing for the utter humiliation of Russia, and start working hard for a negotiated settlement.
But three months into this stupid war, there’s zero sign of restraint or wisdom in either Moscow or Washington.