What is behind the reshuffle in the command of the ‘special military operation?’
January 24, 2023
  • Alexander Golts 
Alexander Golts writes about the replacement of General Sergei Surovikin with Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and highlights how 11 months after the start of the special military operation, Russia’s military-political leadership continues to experiment with how to manage it.
Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, recently appointed the new commander of the “special military operation.” Source: Wiki Commons
The unexpected reshuffle in the command of the “special military operation” (Russian abbreviation: SVO) has elevated Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov to the post of commander, with Sergei Surovikin – on whom military bloggers until recently had hitched their hopes for a quick victory – being demoted to Gerasimov’s deputy. Pro-government commentators instantly began to explain that the strategic operations being planned by the Kremlin require coordination not only between the types and branches of the armed forces, but also with other siloviki agencies, like the National Guard, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB. Their claim is that such coordination can only be carried out at the level of the chief of the General Staff. Other commentators are inclined to attribute the reshuffle to a behind-the-scenes struggle between the main figures involved. Yevgeny Prigozhin, they say, had bet on Surovikin and at the same time smeared other generals, including Gerasimov and the newly appointed Chief of the General Staff of the Ground Forces, General Alexander Lapin.

However, a much more significant fact is escaping commentators: 11 months after the start of the “special military operation,” Russia’s military-political leadership continues to experiment with how to manage it. At first, a joint command was not even created (at least nothing was officially reported about it). Based on official information, the command of each of the four military districts led the fighting in the first months of the conflict. Each of the generals commanded units from “his” district. The air force and navy were subordinate to their own command.

That is seemingly what motivated the creation of a hitherto unknown body: the Joint Headquarters of the Armed Forces Engaged in the SVO, the existence of which became known from press reports after Putin visited it. The very emergence of a “joint headquarters” spoke to the fact that a “joint operation” – with a command system and including combat units from the ground forces, navy and air force – had never been realized. It follows that the units and formations of various branches of the armed forces had their own management, support, supply and communications systems. The headquarters was created to coordinate them. Naturally, such coordination takes time.

True, in April last year, information appeared in foreign media (which was not officially confirmed) that General Alexander Dvornikov had been appointed commander of the entire grouping. Finally, on October 8, General Sergei Surovikin was officially announced as commander. Now, three months later, there has been another shakeup.

With the appointment of Gerasimov, the command has been transferred (or gone back) to the General Staff. The official explanation of the Ministry of Defense is, to put it mildly, very general: it claims that the reshuffle was due to an “expansion of the scale of tasks resolved during its [the SVO’s] implementation, the need to organize closer interaction between the types and branches of the armed forces, as well as to improve the quality of all types of support and the effectiveness of command and control of groupings of troops (forces).” This at least means that the previously created “joint headquarters” was not very effective.

Tangled management instead of network-centric warfare

What is happening is a particular consequence of a bigger problem: Russia has failed to create a clear system of leadership of the armed forces. As far as one can understand, there has never been a clear division of functions between the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff. The command system is extremely confusing. For example, the Main Combat Training Directorate is part of the Ministry of Defense, while the Main Organizational and Mobilization Directorate is part of the General Staff. This explains some of the difficulties of the “partial mobilization:” the General Staff was recruiting reservists, while their training was organized by officials from the Ministry of Defense.

Such confusion in the command structure has been exacerbated by the desire to preserve an archaic military culture at all costs. In particular, we are talking about the expectation that any order of a senior commander be fully and unquestioningly carried out. This situation was quite accurately described by the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army, General Valery Zaluzhny, with regard to Surovikin: “The Soviet Army welcomed and enforced one concept: the commander. But being a commander and being a leader is not the same. With all due respect to Mr Surovikin, if you look at him, he is an ordinary Petrovite commander from Peter the Great’s time… You look at him and understand that either you complete the task or you’re f**ked.”

However, the battlefield in a modern war changes so rapidly that scrupulous adherence to orders formulated in advance can lead to failure.
"The demand for such adherence deprives Russian officers of initiative and personal responsibility, the ability to make independent decisions."
But it is precisely independence in completing a combat mission that is the main guarantee of success in network-centric warfare, now predominant in Western military planning.

Driven by the revolution in military affairs (e.g. satellite reconnaissance and communications, the use of drones), this concept entails each combatant constantly receiving comprehensive information about the situation on the battlefield and making independent decisions based on it. Judging by reports, the Russian army has not had much success at realizing this concept. This is only fair: network-centric warfare is fundamentally incompatible with an archaic military culture and a mass mobilization army, in which carrying out of orders to the letter is much more important than independent decision-making.
Former Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov backed away from the concept of a mass mobilization army, considering it ineffective.
Source: Wiki Commons
An uncompleted reform

Still, military culture cannot be changed overnight, even if you want to. Its carrier is the officer corps. Recall that the Serdyukov military reform was stopped just when it launched changes in military education. Serdyukov and his subordinates intended to transform all military universities – there were 68 in 2008 – into 10 training and research centers (for each of the types and branches of the armed forces), where the leading researchers in the relevant areas of military science would be concentrated.

There was a chance that cadets and officers would get acquainted with the most modern methods of warfare. The reformers aimed to give a graduate of a military training and research center, having received a basic military education, the opportunity to acquire new knowledge without having to leave his place of duty for a long time. They thought it insufficient to base advancement in positions and ranks exclusively on one’s length of service – an officer should necessarily pass not-overly-burdensome courses, mastering new knowledge and skills in a particular area.

Finally and most importantly, the program of basic professional military training was to be radically revised under the Serdyukov reform. It was supposed to be based on fundamental academic disciplines, with much less attention paid to building specific military skills.

As foreign experience shows, the skills to use even complex military equipment – ships, aircraft, missiles – are easily mastered in special training centers. Moreover, the humanities – primarily the study of foreign languages – were intended to be one of the main disciplines in the educational programs for officers. In other words, to be put at the forefront for commanders were such qualities as the ability to constantly learn, understand the world around you and your place in it.

And it was at that point that, following the dismissal of Serdyukov, the reform was reversed. In a nod to the generals, the Ministry of Defense decided to keep a number of military academies as independent institutions. Military schools, under the control of the Ministry of Defense’s Department of Education during Serdyukov’s tenure, were again subordinated to the main commands of the corresponding branches of the armed forces. Addressing their narrow needs, the commands demanded that the schools equip cadets not with fundamental knowledge, but above all with so-called “practical skills.”

And the first of these skills is unquestioning obedience. In 2009-12, due to a reduction in the number of formations, there was a glut of lieutenants who were appointed to sergeant positions. However, the emergence of more and more incomplete formations meant a shortage of officers, which in turn led to an increasing number of officers being commissioned. In 2012, 8,000 people were admitted to military universities, versus around 13,000 in 2022. Meanwhile, starting in 2019, the period for obtaining basic education was reduced by one year to four years.

Given the mobilization and the planned increase in the size of the armed forces, the need for junior officers is even greater. And this is unlikely to boost the quality of command.

Sergei Shoigu’s plans for a gigantic increase in the armed forces (we are talking about the deployment of two dozen divisions), announced as a reform, are bringing us closer toward a mass mobilization army. Such an army can exist only with a constant flow of recruits. To support it, the entire state must labor. Considering the demographic situation in Russia, these plans seem dubious. If it is not propaganda, then an attempt to expand the army by half a million will most likely cause chaos across the entire mobilization system.
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