Move makes Valery Gerasimov directly accountable for the fate of the campaign as Sergey Surovikin, nicknamed ‘General Armageddon’, is effectively demoted.
Russia ordered its top general to take charge of its invasion of Ukraine in the biggest shake-up yet of its military command structure after months of battlefield defeats.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Wednesday that Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu appointed Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov as overall commander of forces for what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The move not only made Gerasimov directly accountable for the fate of the campaign but also in effect demoted General Sergey Surovikin, nicknamed “General Armageddon” by the Russian media for his reputed ruthlessness.
“The increase in the level of leadership of the special military operation is connected with the expansion in the scale of tasks … the need to organise closer contact between different branches of the armed forces, and improve the quality … and effectiveness of the management of Russian forces,” a ministry statement said.
Surovikin’s demotion came after only three months on the job, and he becomes Gerasimov’s deputy along with two other generals – Oleg Salyukov and Alexey Kim.
Days after Surovikin’s nomination, the Russian army signalled a strategic change by unleashing a wave of drone and missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure targets, causing electricity blackouts and water outages in several cities.
During his short time overseeing the troops in Ukraine, Surovikin was credited with strengthening coordination and reinforcing control.
But he also announced a withdrawal in November from Kherson, one of the biggest and most important cities Russian forces had captured during the conflict. His demotion signalled that Russian President Vladimir Putin was not fully satisfied with his performance.
Dmitry Trenin, a political analyst based in Moscow, said the move was made to “streamline the chain of command in the Ukraine operation”.
“The appointment of Gerasimov means the importance of the operation has grown and the scope of the operation may expand beyond what we see today. That is very significant,” Trenin told Al Jazeera.
“The war is getting bigger, more dangerous, and I think this is above the level of a field commander. This is now in the hands of the overall commander of the Russian armed forces.”
Russian pro-war commentators were not impressed.
“The sum does not change just by changing the places of its parts,” wrote one prominent military blogger who posts on the Telegram messaging app under the name of Rybar.
He said Surovikin, a veteran of Russian campaigns in Chechnya and Syria, was being made the fall guy for a series of recent Russian military debacles, including a Ukrainian attack on a Russian barracks in the town of Makiivka that killed at least 89 Russian soldiers, including conscripts, during the New Year period.
Surovikin had been named Russia’s top battlefield commander in Ukraine only last October after a spate of Ukrainian offensives that turned the tide of the war and drew attention to poor training, equipment and morale among Russian forces.