Putin’s changing generals fails to fix Russia’s military performance in Ukraine
In January 1940, just about a month after the Soviet Union attacked Finland in what came to be known as the “Winter War,” General Semyon Timoshenko replaced Kliment Voroshilov, a close associate of Joseph Stalin, as commander of the Soviet invading force. Voroshilov’s troops had suffered 320,000 casualties in that single month; the Finnish casualties were less than a fourth of that total. Timoshenko succeeded where Voroshilov disastrously failed: His forces broke through Finland’s defensive Mannerheim Line and defeated the Finns two months later.
Governments replace commanding generals during wartime for various reasons. A commander may have served an excessive tour of duty. Or, like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, he (there has yet to be a she) is removed for insubordination. But, like Voroshilov, generals are also, and invariably, fired for incompetence. To be dismissed in that manner is humiliating for the general who suffers that fate. For Air Force General Sergey Surovikin, commander of Russia’s Aerospace Forces, and a Hero of the Russian Federation — appointed in October 2022 by Vladimir Putin as commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine — who reportedly was replaced this week by Lieutenant General Yevgeny Nikiforov after a mere three months, humiliation is an understatement.
Putin appointed Surovikin to the command in Ukraine to replace Army Colonel-General Gennady Valeryevich Zhidko, another Hero of the Russian Federation, who in late May 2022 had been named to head the Russian invading forces and then was demoted about a month later. Zhidko, in turn, had replaced Army General Alexandr Dvornikov, who appears to have served less than two months in that position. While Zhidko, like the other two generals, had served in Syria, Dvornikov and Surovikin both shared a reputation for brutality. Dvornikov was nicknamed “the Butcher of Syria.” Surovikin’s reputation in that regard equaled, if not exceeded, that of Dvornikov and his nickname was “General Armageddon.”
Now, he too may be gone.
Putin has taken a special interest in the Winter War for some time. Coming from St. Petersburg, he is especially sensitive to the history of its surrounding region. Indeed, he is known to venerate Peter the Great, who founded St. Petersburg in 1703 and defeated a powerful Swedish force at the Battle of Poltava in 1709. Putin told the Russian Military Historical Society in March 2013 that the Soviet Union had invaded Finland to “correct mistakes” that he argued were made when Finland became independent in 1917. “The border was just 20 kilometers from St. Petersburg and that was a significantly major threat to a city of 5 million,” he told the Society. He opined that the Red Army initially sustained heavy losses because of “errors,” and then Stalin mobilized his forces so that Helsinki should “feel all the power of the Russian, then Soviet, state.”
In replacing general after general in Ukraine — another country whose independence Putin considers to have been a “mistake” — the Russian autocrat is following Stalin’s example. Nevertheless, whereas the Soviet dictator chose the right general to replace his old comrade Voroshilov, Putin has yet to find his 21st century Timoshenko. The war in Ukraine has lasted more than three times as long as the Winter War, with no end in sight.
Putin’s rapid replacement of his military leadership indicates that not only is he dissatisfied with its performance, but that with each change, his panic over the likely outcome of the war continues to grow. It has been said that he has been delusional about the war, that his staff gives him only partial information about its progress, and that he lives in a bubble. His replacement of two — and perhaps now three — top generals in the space of 10 months would indicate otherwise; he sees that his “special military operation” is in serious jeopardy.
It is a common theme in sports that when a team flounders, management replaces the coach. In 1961, the hapless Chicago Cubs hired and fired nine managers. The changes did nothing to improve the Cubs’ poor performance on the field. Putin’s changes appear to be achieving results that are no better. Ukraine fights on, and Russia’s military continues to be stymied on the battlefield, no matter who leads it. Putin has good reason to worry.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.
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