Russia Replaces Its Ukraine War Chief—Again
Experts are asking: Why now?
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Jack here while Robbie enjoys some time off.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Jack here while Robbie enjoys some time off.
We’re starting off with some incredibly sad news. On Tuesday, we learned that Blake Hounshell, a former Foreign Policy managing editor, died at age 44. Hounshell, who went on to work as a top editor at Politico and the New York Times, led FP to three National Magazine Awards from 2009 to 2013 and spearheaded our trek into the internet age. He is survived by his wife Sandy and two children. The New York Times and Politico both wrote beautiful obituaries to Blake and have jointly set up a GoFundMe page to support his family.
Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: Russia swaps out its top general in Ukraine (again), Japan has OK’d more Marines to go to Okinawa, and the Kremlin hosts Iran’s top diplomat amid a push for more ballistic missiles.
If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.
Changing of the Guard
That was the question that was on the minds of U.S. officials and analysts when in a shock move, Russia’s defense ministry announced on Wednesday that Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, would become the overall commander of the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, demoting the current commander, Sergey Surovikin, to become one of his three deputies.
Russia is having its best streak of battlefield luck in months, closing ranks around the Donbas town of Soledar and Bakhmut, a deadly vortex rich in salt and gypsum mines, which may help explain the paramilitary Wagner Group’s interest in it. Russia has also succeeded in sucking more Ukrainian troops into a fight in the Donbas that’s not central to Kyiv’s war aims, draining Ukraine’s manpower when they can least afford it.
“It seems as though the command and control situation has gotten better,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program. “It’s not a moment where they obviously needed a change.”
Russia also had two chances to appoint a top commander like Gerasimov: the first, in April 2022, when Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov became the head of Russia’s forces in Ukraine after the failure of its initial assault on Kyiv, and the second, in October 2022, after Ukraine’s eastern counteroffensive, after which Surovikin became overall commander.
“You’d think if Gerasimov was going to take charge, it would have happened at a time when the war was in a critical situation for Russia,” Lee added.
But officials and analysts also believe there are internal Kremlin politics at play with the change. As Russia’s unified commander in Ukraine, Surovikin had a powerful role that could have upset the centrality of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gerasimov, who are closely allied.
On Wednesday, the British defense ministry’s intelligence arm said the move was likely to anger Russian ultranationalists, who have used Gerasimov as a scapegoat for the Kremlin’s poor execution of the war. “This is a significant development in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approach to managing the war,” the agency tweeted. “The deployment of the [Gerasimov] as theatre commander is an indicator of the increasing seriousness of the situation Russia is facing, and a clear acknowledgement that the campaign is falling short of Russia’s strategic goals.”
And it’s not clear to former U.S. officials that Russia’s military performance is going to improve with Gerasimov coming into the fold. “My instinct is that he’s a more polished leader,” said Jim Townsend, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Obama administration. “But I don’t know if he’s polished in all the wrong areas,” suggesting that Gerasimov may be more wedded to old-school Russian tactics that rely heavily on artillery and cannonfire to suppress their enemies. Russia has begun changing its tactics in the wake of recent defeats, sending more waves of infantry ahead of its armor.
The move could also be a sign of an effort within Russia’s top brass to temper the growing influence of the Wagner Group, which U.S. Defense Department officials believe is advancing at a faster rate than almost any unit in the Russian military fighting in Ukraine. The Wagner Group’s chief, Putin confidante Yevgeny Prigozhin, has taken an outsized public profile, appearing on the front lines in Bakhmut in recent days, consoling the families of fallen Russian troops, and even criticizing the Kremlin’s handling of the war behind the scenes.
Although U.S. officials have been mum about the prospects of a potential second Russian mobilization of forces—which Ukraine believes is all but certain to occur in the coming weeks—Pentagon officials have hinted that Russia is likely to continue waves of attacks, with the Wagner Group drawing on untrained convicts to use in battle.
But former U.S. officials believe that Wagner’s better-than-expected military performance could become a political challenge to Putin.
“He’s trying to stay in power,” Townsend said. “The Wagner Group is becoming more and more and more involved, and Putin is leaning more and more on these guys. And the head of Wagner and his people are competing with the military now. And it’s giving Putin probably someone who is a bit of a competitor to him.”
Let’s Get Personnel
U.S. President Joe Biden has renominated a handful of ambassador picks who were not confirmed during the last Congress: Ana Escrogima as U.S. ambassador to Oman, Jean Manes as U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Ervin Massinga as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, Matthew Murray as U.S. senior official for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Yael Lempert as U.S. ambassador to Jordan, Stephanie Syptak-Ramnath as U.S. ambassador to Peru, and Dorothy Shea as deputy U.S. representative to the United Nations.
Hannah Suh is now a policy advisor at the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific directorate. She previously worked for the Office of the National Cyber Director and WestExec Advisors, which has become a clearing house for many Biden administration appointees.
Researcher Peter Salisbury has left the International Crisis Group.
On the Button
What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.
Ante up. Japan has formally approved plans for a new quick reaction force of U.S. Marines that will be based in Okinawa, deepening the ties between the two allies near Taiwan.
Under Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Japan is looking to take a more outsized offensive role after China’s military exercises near Taiwan that coincided with then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island last summer. Japan is in the midst of a military spending boost that will give it the world’s third-biggest military budget behind the United States and China.
Talking points. How did John Sullivan, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, know that Putin was set on invading Ukraine by the fall of 2021? As the Russians were building up troops on the border, Sullivan said they were reading from their notes when asked by U.S. officials about the intentions behind the buildup.
“There was no engagement,” Sullivan told FP’s Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer. “I’d raise questions. They would look down and see where in their notes there was something possibly related to what I had asked, and they would merely repeat that line.”
Sullivan, who left his post in September 2022, also provides fascinating insight into Putin’s health and being forced to run the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with a skeleton crew after Russia expelled hundreds of American diplomats.
Decoupling. The Biden administration is pushing for a more targeted and focused executive order limiting U.S. investments in China, Axios reports, with an emphasis on checking transactions related to quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and semiconductors.
It’s part of a plan for the United States to begin imposing harsher regulations on outbound transactions, but within the administration, officials such as U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have asked for more time to talk over the plan with allies. The order is not likely to come before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China, which is penciled in for February.
Put On Your Radar
Today: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida meets with his Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau, in Ottawa, Canada, amid a whirlwind tour of the G-7 countries. Kishida is set to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington tomorrow.
Also today, Biden attends former U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral. Carter, who was the Pentagon chief from 2015 to 2017, was serving as director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs when he died suddenly in October 2022.
Monday, Jan. 16: Martin Luther King Jr. Day is held in the United States.
Tuesday, Jan. 17: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is set to host Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Moscow amid rumors of Iran providing ballistic missiles to Russia for the war in Ukraine.
Quote of the Week
“He told me—I remember this specifically—that I’m into sports a little bit, that he was a star on the Baruch [College] volleyball team and that they won the league championship. What can I tell you?”
—Nassau County Republican Chair Joseph Cairo said that newly minted Rep. George Santos, who is facing calls to resign for extensive fabrications of his resume, told him that he won a league volleyball championship at Baruch College. Santos never attended Baruch College.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse by Alexander J. Motyl
• Lessons for the Next War by FP Contributors
• Russia Is Afraid of Western Psychic Attacks by Lauren Wolfe
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Lump of coal. Russian diplomats in Washington have been subject to all sorts of protests since the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. And activists were also keen on making sure they got a Christmas gift. To mark Russian Orthodox Christmas last Saturday, a secret Santa left a gift-wrapped washing machine at the Russian Embassy, mocking Russian troops who looted Ukrainian homes last year by stealing household items.
It’s getting Harry. Prince Harry’s controversial memoir, entitled Spare, is getting the star treatment at British bookstores. Bert’s Books in Swindon has displayed the Duke of Sussex’s controversial book next to the aptly titled How to Kill Your Family.
Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch
More from Foreign Policy
A New Multilateralism
How the United States can rejuvenate the global institutions it created.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
The Endless Frustration of Chinese Diplomacy
Beijing’s representatives are always scared they could be the next to vanish.
The End of America’s Middle East
The region’s four major countries have all forfeited Washington’s trust.