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Putin’s Greatest Problem: Can His War Against Ukraine Be Saved?

Putin hopes a newish general can help Russia win in Ukraine: In the opening days of 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin put Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov in charge of the campaign in Ukraine.

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Gerasimov replaced Colonel-General Sergei Surovikin, the commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces; he had been on the job for just three months. 

Gerasimov is now touring the battlefield in order to improve the “day-to-day discipline” of the Russian forces, according to the latest assessment of the war by the British Military Intelligence. 

Gerasimov in Charge of Ukraine

A few days after his appointment, Gerasimov issued a set of orders to all troops in Ukraine, soldiers and Wagner Group mercenaries alike, in an attempt to bolster morale and crack down on discipline. 

The top Russian officer banned personal cellphones and tablets from the frontlines, restricted the use of civilian vehicles by military personnel on the battlefield, and ordered all troops to be clean-shaven. 

Although the ban on electronic devices is a much-needed measure for a Russian military under fire by Ukrainian long-range fires, the fixation on grooming standards has caused a backlash in the Russian military community.

Many see the measures as a sign of further incompetence by the Russian military leadership, which prefers to focus on haircuts rather than winning the war. 

“The measures have been met with sceptical feedback. However, some of the greatest derision has been reserved for attempts to improve the standard of troops’ shaving. Officials in the Donetsk People’s Republic, described the prioritisation a ‘farce’ that would ‘hamper the process of destroying the enemy,’” the British Military Intelligence assessed in its latest estimate of the war.

“The Russian force continues to endure operational deadlock and heavy casualties; Gerasimov’s prioritisation of largely minor regulations is likely to confirm the fears of his many sceptics in Russia. Along with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, he is increasingly seen as out of touch and focused on presentation over substance,” the British Military Intelligence added.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the main backer and leader of Wagner Group, has taken the opportunity to deride the Russian Ministry of Defense, saying that “war is the time of the active and courageous, and not of the clean-shaven.”

Wagner Group in the War 

Wagner Group has assumed an increasingly more important role in the conflict. With between 35,000 and 50,000 mercenaries on the ground fighting, Wagner Group makes a considerable part of the Russian forces’ fighting strength. According to U.S. and British intelligence assessments, four in five Wagner Group mercenaries are convicts, and the rest are contractors—usually former military personnel who are looking for a better paycheck. 

With Putin’s approval, Prigozhin toured Russian penal colonies and promised freedom to any convict, including rapists and murderers, who could survive a six-month tour of duty in the frontline in Ukraine. But Prigozhin has mainly used them as cannon fodder, sending wave after wave of convicts-turned-mercenaries against Ukrainian fortified positions. 

Wanger Group mercenaries have been mainly active in the south and the Donbas, especially around Bakhmut, where they have had the main role in taking the town.

However, its more prominent role puts the private military company on a collision trajectory with the Russian military. 

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Expert Biography: A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is currently working towards a Master’s Degree in Strategy and Cybersecurity at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His work has been featured in Business InsiderSandboxx, and SOFREP.

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