Russia’s top general has inherited a poisoned chalice in Ukraine, after his predecessor lasted just 3 months. This could lead to an escalation in the war.

  • Russia appointed a new general in charge of Ukraine war, replacing predecessor after just 3 months.
  • Experts told Insider this could mean Russia is set to escalate its war further.
  • Even so, Gen. Valery Gerasimov has inherited a role that could quickly see him fall out of favor.

Russia’s new general in charge of Ukraine is inheriting a poisoned chalice, leaving him likely to escalate the war as Russia tries to bounce back after a string of military defeats, according to experts.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense on Wednesday announced that Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the longtime chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, was appointed the overall head of war in Ukraine after his high-profile predecessor, who was supposed to turn the tide, lasted just three months.

The ministry described Gerasimov not as a simple replacement, but as occupying a new role with even greater oversight over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

His appointment — coming after months of Russian losses — is a potential sign that Russia is gearing up to escalate its efforts to snatch victory from defeat, experts told Insider.

“Gerasimov has more access, more control, more resources at his fingertips than any subsidiary commander, which could mean increased levels of violence, more joint effort, and a full-scale, full-scope war on all fronts,” William Alberque, director of strategy, technology, and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Insider. 

Potential new escalation

Gerasimov was reportedly one of the military leaders who came up with Russia’s initial invasion plan. He has been criticized by Russian nationalists as well as military bloggers for how the war has progressed.

Jade McGylnn, a Russia expert at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, said that this puts additional pressure on Gerasimov, as he “messed up the initial invasion – the so-called Phase One of the war – so this appointment is a poisoned chalice.”

He also takes over as Russia appears ready to escalate its invasion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov in Moscow, Russia, on December 21, 2020.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov in Moscow, Russia, on December 21, 2020.

Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Ukraine has said that it expects a fresh Russian offensive in the Spring, with Ukrainian intelligence warning that Russia plans to mobilize 500,000 additional troops from mid-January — a significantly larger number than the 300,000 soldiers Russia mobilized in September. Russia says 150,000 of those troops have been sent to Ukraine so far.

McGlynn said Gerasimov’s appointment “is definitely a commitment to keep fighting. It is supposed to show that Putin is in Ukraine for the long run and that he will outlast the West’s support for Ukraine.”

Gerasimov’s newer, larger role than his predecessor also suggests Russia is “expanding the war effort more generally, taking a whole-of-society approach,” she said.

Alberque, meanwhile, said that Gerasimov’s background suggests that Russia is ready to ramp things up.

“I’m actually very concerned that this means an escalation.”

Time is ticking for Gerasimov

Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that Gerasimov’s appointment is “a kind of demotion, or at least the most poisoned of chalices.”

He added that Gerasimov’s future is now hanging by a thread. “I don’t think this is intended to create a pretext to sack him as the war is too important and Putin can sack who he wants. But he needs some kind of win or a career ends in ignominy.”

Gerasimov’s predecessor, known for his brutal tactics and named “General Armageddon” by former colleagues, did not change the war much in his three months in charge.

Colonel General Sergei Surovikin, Commander of the Russian forces in Syria, speaks, with a map of Syria projected on the screen in the back, at a briefing in the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow, Russia, Friday, June 9, 2017. Russia's Defense Ministry announced that air force chief, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, would be the commander of all Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. The statement marked the first official appointment of a single commander for the entire Russian force in Ukraine.

Colonel General Sergei Surovikin speaks with a map of Syria projected on the screen in the back, at a briefing in the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow, Russia, Friday, June 9, 2017.

AP/Pavel Golovkin, File

Sergei Surovikin, who was appointed in October, arrived with a fearsome reputation for targeting civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools in Syria, Insider’s Charles R. Davis previously reported.

He pushed the tactic of firing projectiles across Ukraine, targeting critical infrastructure and repeatedly plunging millions of Ukrainians into darkness.

But though Ukraine had to scramble to provide water, power, and heat, Russia’s military situation did not improve.

In fact, Russia has continued to cede territory to Ukrainian forces, including the city of Kherson, the largest urban area that Russia was ever able to capture in its invasion.

An impossible task

Gerasimov now inherits a war that has seen Russian forces regularly humiliated, with Ukraine taking back vast swathes of territory and now preparing to receive its most advanced weapons yet from Western allies.

McGlynn said Gerasimov’s appointment “leaves him in an impossible situation and one that is only likely to get worse.”

This is, she said, because the war is “unwinnable” for Russia.

Gerasimov is loyal to Putin and will not “challenge the poor political decisions and analysis driving military objectives,” she added

Others agree. Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation in Washington, told The New York Times on Wednesday that Russia had taken “someone who is competent and replaced him with someone who is incompetent, but who has been there a long time and who has shown that he is loyal.”