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On the same day that official Russian media reported about the long–awaited victory, the alleged capture of small town Soledar, the main military news came from Moscow. Defense minister Sergey Shoigu appointed Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov as commander of the integrated group of troops in Ukraine. Former Commander General Sergei Surovikin has been demoted to the position of deputy. Commander-in-Chief of the Ground Forces Oleg Salyukov, and also Deputy Chief of the General Staff were the other deputies. The Ministry of Defense explained these appointments by saying that “the higher level of military command in the special military operation is related to the broader scope of missions tackled in its course and the need to organize closer coordination between military branches and services of the armed forces and also the increased quality of all types of logistics support and efficiency in command and control of the groups of troops (forces)."

All this means that the Russian leadership continues its experiments with organizing the command of its forces during eleven months of hostilities. During the first seven months of the operation there was no official information about any joint command of Russian troops in Ukraine. It looked as if the leadership was carried out by the commanders of the four military districts. Each of these generals led the units that were sent from the district. Aviation and the navy were subordinated to their superiors. It could be assumed that the general command of the operation at that period was carried out by the General Staff. Finally, on October 8, general Sergei Surovikin was appointed commander of the integrated group of troops. At the end of a day a hitherto unknown body – “the joint headquarters of the branches of the armed forces involved in the special military operation” – was created. The existence of this joint staff became known only from information reports about Putin's visit at it.

Now we can conclude that the work of this headquarters has been recognized as unsatisfactory, and the general command has moved (or returned) to the General Staff. At least it means that the Russian command system until now did not reach the level of joint operation, which integrates units of different branches and services under a single command. Gerasimov is now assigned “to organize closer coordination between military branches and services” – the goal that had to be reached before the “special operation” started. It’s possible that the Kremlin decided to strengthen leadership and put personal responsibility on general Gerasimov before planned advances were launched.

It cannot be ruled out that the changes in command mark the next stage in the undercover battles of various "power" groups within Russian leadership. The new appointments took place in a situation of open conflict between Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the private military company Wagner Group, and the leadership of the armed forces. Prigozhin insists that Soledar was taken exclusively by Wagner units. And the Ministry of Defense contrary is not rushing to report the capture of this small town. It insists that Russian Airborne Troops blocked Soledar from the northern and southern parts of the city and thus participated in the assault.

At the same time, it is known that Prigozhin has repeatedly expressed support for general Surovikin. Nevertheless, Prigozhin has allowed himself to sharply criticize other Russian generals. For example, General Alexander Lapin was the object of such criticism. When Lapin was removed from the position of commander of the Central Military District, it was associated with Prigozhin’s attacks. But on January 10th, general Lapin received a new position and was appointed as chief of the Main Staff of the Russian Ground Forces. Moreover, Prigozhin publicly supported the Wagner fighters, who rudely criticized Gerasimov for interruptions in the supply of troops in the Donbass. Finally, so-called military bloggers who are aware of the tough relationships within the Russian military leadership insist that "Gerasimov has not tolerated Surovikin since 2017, who has been predicted for the post of chief of the General Staff for the last 6 years”. All this opens up doubts that the new appointments will increase the effectiveness of Russian troops in Ukraine.

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Alexandr Golts
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