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PARIS: Facing military failure, new leader. Moscow on Wednesday chose its chief of staff to lead operations in Ukraine, a sign of Russia’s impatience and disarray in the face of a war it cannot win, experts say.

Appointed at the end of October, the dreaded Sergei Surovikin did not last three months. He was demoted to number two in the ranking, behind Valéri Guerassimov, who had been at the top of the Russian military hierarchy for ten years.

In Moscow as in the West, observers Thursday evoked President Vladimir Putin’s impatience in the face of Ukrainian resistance, the fragility of the Russian command in the grip of unrealizable demands and the promise of another major offensive.

Never before

In Russia or elsewhere, it is rare to appoint a chief of staff – Valéri Guerassimov retains this function – in a single operation. The person who coordinates, anticipates, assesses global threats, cannot be the one who rules on the ground.

“The last time it happened was in 1941 during the Nazi invasion,” recalls one Moscow analyst on condition of anonymity.

Guerassimov, number two in the military hierarchy behind the Minister of Defence, carried the nuclear briefcase. “Would he take her with him” to Ukraine? he quipped. For him, this appointment “violated all existing rules” of the military command. A decision which revealed that “things did not go according to plan”.

For nearly eleven months after the start of the invasion, Russia could only see the stalemate.

At this time, the cities of Bakhmout and Soledar (East) were subjected to heavy fighting. “It is not consistent to change chiefs of operations in the middle of a battle,” said AFP Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean, Russia researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

“It throws the whole hierarchy off balance, top to bottom. That’s not a good signal.”

Coming Attack

Experts gathered to see in this decision a sign of the acceleration of Russian operations. Attacks have been mentioned for several months and the hypothesis of a new mobilization is not excluded, after the first one in September of about 300,000 people.

“It is clear that this reshuffling means that there are plans to expand the scale of the battle,” said independent Russian military expert Alexander Khramchikhin, whose aim is to ensure effective control over areas claimed by Russia (Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia).

For Mark Galeotti, of the British think-tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the decision was “confirmation, if needed, that a serious attack is coming and that Putin recognizes that poor coordination is a problem”.

Putin’s opacity

What could General Surovikin do in less than three months? What errors can be associated with it? How to justify the structurally inefficient waltz of troop leaders? Experts point to the impatience and indecision of the Kremlin strongmen.

In the absence of recent military successes, Putin noted the increasing vilification of his troops’ performance, which raises “the eternal Russian question: + whose fault + and + what to do +”, summarized on Twitter Tatiana Stanovaya, elite Russian language specialist.

But Guerassimov’s candidacy did not answer him. “Everyone looked shocked: the men of Prigojine (boss of Wagner’s private paramilitary group, editor’s note), military correspondents and soldiers. A large number of very knowledgeable people did not seem to understand the substance of this decision.”

Some evoke the choice to send to Ukraine a man of undeniable loyalty. But for Mark Galeotti, “if you keep naming, rotating, roasting your stars, setting unrealistic demands, and arbitrarily lowering them, it’s not going to generate loyalty.”

Russian Doubt

By changing military directions again, Putin will not appease the doubts that inhabit parts of the Moscow elite and Russian public opinion.

Today there is “dissatisfaction about why we didn’t win this war”, admitted Alexandre Khramchikhine, who accused the conflict of “poor predictions at the start”. Estimates, in fact, validated by Guerassimov…

And many analysts see the face of this new volte as a sign of palace intrigue. “The battle of communications around Soledar shows that everyone, soldiers like Wagner, are trying to pull the plug and claim credit,” says Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean.

“There’s everything in this story: internal struggles, power struggles, jealousy,” interrupted Dara Massicot, an expert at the Rand Corporation in Washington.

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