Will Moscow Refresh its Military Strategy?

Changes afoot: Vladimir Putin with his Chief of General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. Image: kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

While rumours abound about potential replacements in Russia’s military leadership, an impending rethink of Russia’s overall strategy could offer more clarity on what the months ahead may look like.

Since 11 December, rumours have emerged on Russian social media about a ‘change of leadership’ in the Russian General Staff – in particular, that President Vladimir Putin would imminently confirm a replacement for Russian Chief of General Staff (CGS) Valeriy Gerasimov, with it becoming public towards the end of the month. Some of the rumours suggest that Gerasimov should be replaced by a ‘compromise candidate’ – one acceptable to the armed forces as a whole, as well as to a ‘fragile elite consensus’ – who should have ‘unlimited powers’, including over the budget, with the task of delivering victory in what Moscow calls its ‘Special Military Operation’ (SMO). The rumours were denied by the Russian Ministry of Defence, but have been picked up and circulated by Western officials and media, albeit with the caveat that they could not be verified.

Certainly, this would be an important move: as CGS, Gerasimov has overseen the Russian military’s modernisation since 2012. In this time, he has directed a reshaping and modernisation of Russian military strategy that has emphasised thinking about the intensification of a global geo-economic contest (and even war) during the 2020s, the emergence of a 21st-century form of Blitzkrieg, and the need to encourage initiative in command.

But while a number of senior officers, including Deputy Defence Minister Dmitry Bulgakov, have indeed lost their jobs recently, it is worth sounding a note of caution about these rumours. False stories that Gerasimov – together with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu – has gone missing or been suspended or fired have emerged several times since February, and Gerasimov was present at a meeting of the military command with Putin on 16 December. Nevertheless, the rumours do serve to stimulate important questions about continuity and change in the wider defence and security landscape, and the ‘so what’ of who comes next in terms of Russian military strategy.

Regarding the wider landscape, while there are some interesting new appointments – most notably 44-year-old Colonel Oleg Gorshenin’s appointment in October this year to command the National Defence Management Centre – the most obvious characteristic of the Russian defence and security leadership is length of service in command. And despite the numerous problems in the conduct of the war in 2022, this is especially noteworthy among those tasked with operations, combat training and mobilisation. The head of the Main Operational Directorate, Sergei Rudskoi, was appointed in 2015, for instance, and Fanil Sarvarov has been head of the Operational Training Directorate since 2016. Ivan Buvaltsev, head of the Main Directorate for Combat Training since 2013, is currently involved in the combat training of those mobilised since September 2022.

Indeed, those responsible for overseeing mobilisation and the shift of the state to a war footing are also long-standing appointments. Evgeniy Burdinsky, for instance, has spent nearly a decade in the Main Organisation-Mobilisation Directorate, initially as first deputy head in 2013, and then since March 2018 as its head. Likewise, Alexander Linets, head of the Main Directorate of Special Projects of the President of the Russian Federation, which includes mobilisation measures, was appointed in 2015. The questions therefore become: are the rumours about a replacement of just Gerasimov, or the wider defence leadership; and who would replace them, and with what implications? Watching for changes at these levels may offer insight, for instance, into any shifts in operational preparation and training.

Who is who and why in the chain of command, and continuity and change in personnel, remains an essential part of good analysis of Russia as we attempt to interpret Moscow’s reconstitution of its military

The ‘so what of who next’ is all the more interesting, given that the rumours are essentially based on calls for a new strategy in the SMO. Such calls urge a change of approach to the war in Ukraine, and a strategy of ‘all for the front, all for victory’, with implications for Russia’s broader military doctrine.

As it happens, the rumours do coincide with an officially announced rethink of military strategy. In October, Putin tasked Shoigu with planning the development of the armed forces in the light of the experience of the SMO. Shoigu is due to deliver the results of this rethink this month, and it is this process that should be the focus of attention.

This process will provide some clarity, perhaps, on how Moscow understands the scale of the war going into 2023 and what any further escalation might look like, including intensified campaigning – or even a major offensive – later in the winter or in the spring. This might also shed light on the nature of any potential second wave of mobilisation that is also being discussed in Russian media (but again denied by the leadership), both in terms of another draft and whether or not there will be a move to mobilise the wider economy. The real question underpinning the rumours of Gerasimov’s departure is therefore: ‘who will oversee the implementation of what reforms, and how will this shape core tasks into the mid-2020s?’

Related to this is the question about where Gerasimov would go should he in fact be replaced as CGS: would he still retain his position as president of the General Staff Academy, an influential position in shaping the debate about future war and strategy? And what of others who have recently been replaced, such as Alexander Dvornikov, commander of the SMO until the summer but subsequently very quiet? He had previously played a role in training and the preparation of reserves; does he now have a role in the reconstruction of Russia’s ground forces through mobilisation?

Who is who and why in the chain of command, and continuity and change in personnel – effectively, Kremlinology – remains an essential part of good analysis of Russia as we attempt to interpret Moscow’s reconstitution of its military. While it helps to mitigate confusion and surprise about rumours, more importantly, it helps to eschew fake ‘doctrines’ and to focus instead on how the Russian military interprets lessons learnt in the changing character of war and their implications for evolving military strategy in the 2020s.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Andrew Monaghan

Senior Associate Fellow; Founding Director, Russia Research Network

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