Military chiefs made scapegoats for Russia’s battlefield failures
A Russian serviceman refrains from poking the bear at the Mariupol zoo on Thursday. Picture: AFP
By LARISA BROWN
Russia has sacked senior commanders for their “poor performance” during the invasion of Ukraine amid a toxic environment of “cover-ups and scapegoating”, according to British intelligence.
Lieutenant General Serhiy Kisel, who commanded the elite 1st Guards Tank Army of the western military district, had been suspended for his failure to capture Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, the Ministry of Defence in London said.
Vice-Admiral Igor Osipov, who commanded Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, had also “likely” been suspended after the sinking of the cruiser Moskva last month, officials confirmed.
While General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, appeared to remain in his post – he phoned his US counterpart General Mark Milley overnight on Thursday – it was unclear whether he “retains the confidence of President Putin”, the ministry said. A Western military source said this week that General Gerasimov and Vladimir Putin were believed to be making low-level tactical decisions of the sort normally decided by a colonel or brigadier.
The ministry briefing added on Thursday: “In recent weeks, Russia has fired senior commanders who are considered to have performed poorly.
“A culture of cover-ups and scapegoating is probably prevalent within the Russian military and security system.”
Such a culture could have an impact on Russia’s ability to fight going forward, it said. The ministry said many officials involved in the invasion of Ukraine would “likely be increasingly distracted by efforts to avoid personal culpability for operational setbacks”.
“This will likely place a further strain on Russia’s centralised model of command and control, as officers seek to defer key decisions to their superiors. It will be difficult for Russia to regain the initiative under these conditions.”
The Ukrainians claimed in April that General Kisel had been dismissed on March 25 for his “indecisiveness and cowardliness” when commanding units in the region of Sumy and Kharkiv. Russian media said he gained combat experience in the first and second Chechen wars and the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.
Russian military leaders have also been criticised in the West for their treatment of soldiers under their command and failure to prepare them for war.
Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, said the Russian high command behaved as if its troops were an “afterthought” and it could “simply throw people at poorly designed objectives until it succeeds”.
Writing for the Foreign Affairs magazine, Ms Massicot said the Russian military’s disregard for its soldiers had undermined their effectiveness and “tanked their morale and will to fight”.
Military leaders may have been willing to overlook “systemic personnel maltreatment” and approved the invasion plan despite all its clear flaws, “the most obvious being that it could stretch the professional fighting force to the point of breaking”.
“There is no ready follow-on force to relieve the 190,000 troops Russia committed to this war, which means the troops will fight until exhaustion unless the Kremlin declares a mass mobilisation”, she added.
US defence officials said Russia appeared to be scaling down its ambitions, with assaults becoming smaller and more localised. Russian progress overall was “fairly limited”, a US official said. Ukrainian forces continued to push back Russian forces northeast of Kharkiv, with some forces pushed back to about 3km from the border.
Russian attacks in the eastern Donbas region were described as “futile” by the Centre for Defence Strategies, a Ukrainian think tank, because of Russia’s lack of manpower.
It noted Russia has 105 battalion tactical groups (BTG) – typically comprising up to 900 soldiers each – in Ukraine. Twenty of them have arrived in the past three weeks.
However, for a successful large-scale offensive in the Donbas they would need to commit at least 68 BTGs, it suggested.
The CDS did not state how many groups Russia had deployed in the region but claimed Ukraine had about 48 BTGs there.
“These numbers explain the futility of Russian actions in the region,” it said.
Richard Barrons, a former British military chief, has said previously that well-established Ukrainian defensive positions would be “really difficult to overcome” in the east of the country.