RUSSIA’S OCCUPYING ARMY in Ukraine has a new leader. On January 11th Russia’s government announced that the country’s most senior soldier, Valery Gerasimov, had been appointed to oversee the war instigated by President Vladimir Putin. General Gerasimov replaces Sergei Surovikin, a ruthless general who in October was appointed the first official overall commander. The Kremlin has linked the reshuffle, officially made by the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, but in reality by Mr Putin, to a broadening of its campaign and a need to tidy up the command structure. In response Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense quipped: “Every Russian general must receive at least one opportunity to fail in Ukraine. Some may be lucky enough to fail twice.” Who is General Gerasimov and why has he been put in charge?
Valery Gerasimov was born in 1955 to a working-class family in Kazan, the capital city of a region of ethnic Tatars. In the 1970s he trained to be a tank driver and rose steadily through the ranks. He served as a commander during the war in Chechnya in the 2000s. Considered a loyal and safe pair of hands, in 2012 he was appointed chief of general staff, the highest job in the Russian army—three days after his ally Mr Shoigu was made defense minister. Mr Shoigu has relied on him ever since, to oversee Russia’s brutal campaign in Syria in 2015 and its seizure of Crimea in 2014, describing the general as “a military man to the roots of his hair”.
Outside of Russia General Gerasimov is best known for an essay, written in 2013, in which he described a state of modern hybrid warfare using subversion methods spanning “political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military measures” to complement traditional fighting . In what was later misleadingly coined the “Gerasimov doctrine”, the general was criticizing the West’s behavior in the Middle East rather than advocating a new strategy for Russia. But the influence of such thinking is arguably evident in the evolution of Russia’s disinformation campaigns, including in Ukraine and on government-funded international media, as well as in its meddling in foreign elections.
As chief of staff General Gerasimov has ordered more frequent military exercises than his predecessors did. But as head of the army during the war in Ukraine, he is associated with Russia’s failures. He commands a poorly prepared and under-equipped army, largely from afar. He was once spotted on the front near the eastern city of Izyum, from where he was evacuated in early May following a reported shrapnel wound. Around the time of the “partial” military mobilization drive, in September, the general was rumored to have been sidelined. Now he has re-entered the limelight.
His appointment may have been prompted by a growing rivalry between the traditional military establishment and the Kremlin’s irregular proxies. General Surovikin’s campaign embraced the Wagner Group of mercenaries but its leader, Yevgeny Prighozin, has become increasingly blunt in attacking the military chiefs. After Russia announced the full capture of the eastern town of Soledar on January 13th Mr Prighozin complained that the Russian army was taking credit owed to his men. (The exact status of Soledar is still disputed.) The Wagner Group is also entrenched in the battle for the nearby town of Bakhmut which, despite mounting losses, Russia is determined to take as part of its campaign to control the Donbas. So the appointment of a man as senior as General Gerasimov to oversee Russia’s next offensive may be intended to reassert the Russian army’s control of the war in Ukraine and, in turn, Mr Putin’s authority over it. ■