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Russia names a new commander for its war in Ukraine


What do jealousy, power struggles and political infighting have to do with Russia's strategy in Ukraine? Well, possibly quite a bit. That's according to security experts who point to a key shift for Russia this week. The Kremlin has named General Valery Gerasimov as the new overall commander of the war. Now, might a new leader signal new tactics? Here to talk through the change and the palace intrigue behind it is Dara Massicot. She's a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and a former senior analyst on Russian military capabilities for the Pentagon. Dara, welcome.

DARA MASSICOT: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: All right. I want you just to briefly sketch out General Gerasimov's bio for us. Who is he?

MASSICOT: General Gerasimov of is the chief of general staff. Roughly, he's equivalent to General Milley here in Washington, D.C. He has been in that position for about 10 years.

KELLY: OK. So he's the most senior military officer that Russia has, right?

MASSICOT: He is. He's their top officer. The only two people above him are the Russian defense minister and the Russian president.

KELLY: OK. And I wonder if, on any level, this is surprising that he's now been put in charge of the war because he was among those who were blamed for some big setbacks, at least early on.

MASSICOT: That's exactly right. It is really surprising that they're giving him another opportunity to command this war. It is rumored that he and a very small group of officials were responsible for planning the invasion largely in secret from the rest of the military, leading to significant losses early on in material and manpower. So it's very unusual that they're giving him another go at this. It's even more unusual because Surovikin has not made huge mistakes in the three months that he's been in control of the overall operations.

KELLY: Surovikin - we should say this is the general who Gerasimov is replacing.

MASSICOT: Yes. Yes, General Sergey Surovikin. He was named the overall commander of the war effort in October. And he had previously led the operational group in the South down in Kherson, which was considered one of the more successful aspects of the invasion.

KELLY: So why the shakeup? What's the official Kremlin line?

MASSICOT: Well, the official Kremlin line is that the special military operation, as they call it - they're still not calling it a war - the explanation is that the tasks are expanding, and so therefore they're going to give it to General Gerasimov because he's a higher command. And it really needs that level of oversight to ensure coordination. I mean, that's the very staid, official line of what's happening here. But this is a highly unusual move to have someone as senior as him running the day-to-day operations of this war. And so my belief is that this is some kind of political infighting going on And as a result of factions that are fighting with each other within the overall effort.

KELLY: Speak to that a little bit more. What makes you think that?

MASSICOT: So Surovikin is a very popular individual in the Russian military world. He is a very large personality. And I want to note that, you know, he's a hard man in a system that produces hard men. He has a reputation of being very brutal.

KELLY: His nickname is General Armageddon, right?

MASSICOT: Yes. Yes. But, you know, he has a bit of a following because he gets results. So, again, with all this popularity, you know, and people at the same time critiquing Russian military leadership for all of their mistakes, I think there's some sort of rival camp situation going on behind the scenes.

KELLY: It does seem worth noting Putin subbed out his commander just in October. Here we are in January. Three months later, he's subbing out the commander again. Does it speak to - I'll use the word desperation. Does it speak to that perhaps Vladimir Putin knows the war isn't going well and he's throwing whatever and whoever he can at it?

MASSICOT: I think that's a really good observation. To me, it seemed like they have been a little adrift strategically, not really knowing where they go from here. When I look at the Russian front line and what they have to use, I don't really see a force that's truly capable of a large-scale offensive that would be successful. And so it could very well be that this leadership change is casting about a bit for a way forward that will work.

KELLY: Put today's headline in context. We're hearing about fierce fighting for control of the town of Soledar. There are conflicting accounts from Russia and Ukraine, as on many things, over whether this town is now fully under Russian control. But does it speak to pressure on General Gerasimov some of coming in? You got to win something. You got to win something fast.

MASSICOT: That may well be true. The fighting around Bakhmut and Soledar has just been raging for months. But again, in the overall context here of how this is going, these are destroyed small towns now. They have been subjected to excessive shelling. For that to be claimed as a success, I think, tells you a lot about where the Russian operation is at this point.

KELLY: One question that's run throughout this war is whether a desperate Putin might escalate, might use tactical nuclear or chemical weapons on the battlefield. Does having General Gerasimov some often charge make that any more any less likely?

MASSICOT: Well, this is one of the concerns that I have about Gerasimov and about Shoigu.

KELLY: Shoigu, the defense minister.

MASSICOT: My concerns about escalation are this - even though Gerasimov has always been the No. 1 official throughout the entire war, by demoting a voice like Surovikin and others who may believe in a different way forward for the Russian army, if that order were to come down like we're losing, I don't have options, I need something quick, I don't think that Gerasimov and Shoigu are the ones that will stand up and say no. They are yes men. But we're not there. There's several steps in the escalation ladder before those kind of things start to happen.

KELLY: That's terrifying. What are the checks then?

MASSICOT: Yeah. So there's several steps that would happen before a nuclear weapon. It could be things like signaling attacks against the satellite constellation. It could be attacks that start to happen outside of Ukraine or threats to do so. It wouldn't necessarily be a bolt from the blue.

KELLY: Dara Massicot. She is senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. Thank you.

MASSICOT: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kat Lonsdorf
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Ashley Brown
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.