‘Winging It’: Russia Is Getting Its Generals Killed on the Front Lines

Russian generals have had to lead from the front because its amateur army can’t move otherwise.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tour a military gear exhibition before the annual meeting of the Defence Ministry board in Moscow on Dec. 21, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tour a military gear exhibition before the annual meeting of the Defence Ministry board in Moscow on Dec. 21, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tour a military gear exhibition before the annual meeting of the Defence Ministry board in Moscow on Dec. 21, 2021. Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Russia has lost at least five generals fighting in Ukraine in less than a month, Western officials said Monday, as communications failures and a lack of discipline among hundreds of thousands of conscripted Russian troops have made it more difficult to communicate orders to the front lines.

The tally of Russian generals killed in the nearly monthlong conflict—most of them one- and two-star commanders, including at least one lieutenant general—is likely the highest death rate among general officers in the Russian military since World War II.

On Sunday, Mykhailo Podoliak, a top advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said six Russian generals had been killed, calling the invading army “fully unprepared” for the fight in Ukraine. Western assessments of deaths among Russian commanders are slightly more conservative. One European diplomat familiar with Western intelligence assessments told Foreign Policy on Monday that at least five Russian generals had been killed, owing mostly to failures in electronic communications equipment that left them vulnerable to targeted strikes and to their efforts to get a large force of nearly 200,000 troops—many of them young conscripts—to follow orders by leading from the front.

Russia has lost at least five generals fighting in Ukraine in less than a month, Western officials said Monday, as communications failures and a lack of discipline among hundreds of thousands of conscripted Russian troops have made it more difficult to communicate orders to the front lines.

The tally of Russian generals killed in the nearly monthlong conflict—most of them one- and two-star commanders, including at least one lieutenant general—is likely the highest death rate among general officers in the Russian military since World War II.

On Sunday, Mykhailo Podoliak, a top advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said six Russian generals had been killed, calling the invading army “fully unprepared” for the fight in Ukraine. Western assessments of deaths among Russian commanders are slightly more conservative. One European diplomat familiar with Western intelligence assessments told Foreign Policy on Monday that at least five Russian generals had been killed, owing mostly to failures in electronic communications equipment that left them vulnerable to targeted strikes and to their efforts to get a large force of nearly 200,000 troops—many of them young conscripts—to follow orders by leading from the front.

“They’re struggling on the front line to get their orders through,” said the European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss recent battlefield intelligence. “They’re having to go to the front line to make things happen, which is putting them at much greater risk than you would normally see.”

The European diplomat said the Russian death toll among general officers is up to a fifth of the number of commanders deployed in Ukraine, which Western intelligence officials estimate at 20 officers, making the military less able to operate and more bogged down. “It’s all about a lack of preparedness among the military,” the diplomat said. “They are asking for things to happen, and they are not happening.”

While the war has featured almost no ship-to-ship combat, high-ranking naval officers appear to be getting killed in greater numbers. Over the weekend, a deputy Russian Black Sea Fleet commander, Andrey Paliy—who was set to be promoted to a one-star admiral rank—was shot dead by Ukrainian forces outside the besieged city of Mariupol.

Earlier on Monday, the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that 9,861 Russian soldiers had been killed in Ukraine in nearly a month of combat, with 16,153 injured, a possible leak or hack of official Russian Defense Ministry statistics. The paragraph reporting this was later purged from the story. Officially, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that 498 Russian troops had been killed in Ukraine as of March 2, less than a week into the war.

But officials said Russian commanders are also making tactical errors. After Maj. Gen. Vitaly Gerasimov, a one-star equivalent, was killed outside the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in early March, Ukrainian intelligence officials said they picked up on radio chatter expressing frustration over a breakdown in secure Russian communications equipment. Gerasimov was believed to be the nephew of Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s top military officer.

The nearly monthlong invasion of Ukraine appears to mark the largest deployment of Russian forces since the fall of the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago. The Soviet Union’s nine-year war in Afghanistan during the 1980s peaked at 115,000 troops, while claims of Russian troop strength in two wars in Chechnya were well below 100,000. Russia deployed even smaller numbers of forces to Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, sometimes using nonuniformed troops to mask their movements.

The United States has not confirmed the deaths of any Russian commanders. But U.S. officials have cited in the same breath the size and complexity of the invasion of Ukraine, a country roughly the size of Texas, and the large Russian death toll, which has left morgues in neighboring Belarus overflowing with the dead.

“It makes sense that they would have senior leaders, even general officers, in the field for an invasion of this size,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide a candid assessment of the battlefield. “They haven’t done anything on [this] size and scale really ever.”

The senior U.S. defense official said Russia’s military also has a tradition of a more stringent top-down command structure than Western militaries, giving junior officers far less flexibility and involving high-ranking officers in the nitty-gritty of tactical decisions. “It’s apples to oranges in terms of how they organize themselves [and] how they lead,” the official added.

So far, Russia has announced the death of only one commander, Maj. Gen. Andrey Sukhovetsky, a veteran of the wars in Chechnya, Georgia, and the 2014 annexation of Crimea, who was killed in combat just four days after the invasion. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also reportedly fired the deputy chief of the Rosgvardia force, Russia’s rough equivalent of the U.S. National Guard, over charges of leaking information and wasting fuel.

“There’s direction coming from on high: You better get your ass out there and make progress or else,” said James Foggo, a retired four-star admiral who commanded the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet, responsible for Europe and Africa, and who now leads the Center for Maritime Strategy think tank at the Navy League of the United States. “Their military chain of command is a very threatening kind of environment. You either perform or you find yourself replaced or out of a job—or even worse.”

U.S. and Western intelligence agencies have picked up on some degradation of Russian command and control ability, in line with logistics problems that Russian troops have encountered throughout the war, which could be causing Russian generals to die in larger numbers. Russia has also reportedly lost a large number of field-grade commanders beyond the fallen generals.

“It’s a bigger problem if you lose commanders of units because then it’s harder to have someone step in and take over,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Just one U.S. general has been killed in a war zone since the Vietnam War: Army Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, who was killed in an insider attack when an Afghan soldier opened fire on a visiting delegation at a U.S. base in 2014. Another, Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude, was killed at the Pentagon during 9/11 when a hijacked airliner crashed into the building. But there have been close calls: Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller pulled his handgun during an insider attack that killed two Afghan security officials in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in 2018, but he escaped unharmed.

The European diplomat who spoke to Foreign Policy said Russian generals at times had gone further out into the field to deal with disciplinary issues, such as Russian conscripts looting stores and houses for food. Current and former U.S. officials have said Russia’s lack of a professional body of noncommissioned officers—which enforce discipline in Western militaries—has led to some of the war crimes that have flashed across social media.

“That is the mark of an undisciplined and unprofessional army that is poorly led and poorly trained, and to make up for it, [they] push the generals into the field,” said Foggo, the retired U.S. admiral. “They’re out there, and they’re kind of winging it. This is breaking down into an undisciplined rabble.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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