Popular speculation on Surovikin’s demotion centers on his “alliance” with Prigozhin, implying conflict with the Russian M.O.D., which is presumably alleviated by the appointment of Gerasimov as the new theater commander.
If Putin’s former reputation as a coldly logical thinker were not diminished, this reasoning would not be so attractive. The explanation for why some actor did something always exists on multiple planes:
- Stated reason, with at least partly fallacious logic.
- Private, how the actor understands his motivation at the level of consciousness.
- The real reason, a product of the unconscious mind, unknown to the actor himself.
The popular argument cannot be excluded from the mix. But it lacks logical support, hiding the lack in the swirl of frictions that envelope the Kremlin. A simple syllogism kicks kicks it hard:
- Premise: Putin’s overriding goal is to win his war.
- If Surovikin were winning, his replacement would compromise the overriding goal.
- Therefore, his replacement is primarily due to military failure.
This logic has been neglected. Within the desert of Russian military strategy, bolstered by a romantic belief in Russian military qualities, Putin has engaged in a quixotic search for the perfect general. In the 18th Century, there was a Russian candidate for perfection. Alexander Suvorov never lost a battle. His admirable personal qualities and modest lifestyle contrast with the degraded modern Russian military. Perhaps the last who could approach him was Zhukov.
As Putin’s romantic dream wilted, he gained a new appreciation for industrial warfare. This is key to the selection of Gerasimov. Russia’s military-industrial complex is small, with a “stovepipe” informational architecture lacking lateral connections. While the U.S. complex has widespread lateral contact with the uniform military, this is not true in Russia.
Surovikin’s appointment in 2017 as Commander of the Aerospace Forces does not negate this. He is a field officer, without technical background or the advanced education of western militaries. It implies an institutional system that promotes field combat experience as a qualification for any position, no matter how technical. The Russian romantic replaces expertise with martial experience when substitution is actually impossible.
Gerasimov is marginally better. His long experience as a staff officer brings him close to the tops of the stovepipes, where he can sample the smoke. He has contact with suppliers. He may even be able to read parts of a contract. He knows who is stealing, a step in the right direction. He can see the supply chain in action. Gerasimov is the best Russia has to enable industrial warfare for Putin’s “long war.”
Let’s revisit the Kremlin Game of Thrones. Prigozhin’s public persona resembles a cobble of Navalny (alleging corruption) and the bellicosity of some separatist leaders who were liquidated by the Kremlin. As his public posture gets louder while Putin’s voice softens, why is Prigozhin still alive? The answer is the premise of the syllogism: Putin’s overriding goal is to win his war.
Prigozhin is in conflict with the Conglomerate Imperative: Grow by absorption. The M.O.D. wants to own Wagner. This does not mean an immediate acquisition; absorption could result in the loss of Wagner’s edge. But Putin’s clock is running; see Putin Disappears; Illness a Factor? Prigozhin risks a prolonged, violent succession struggle. Surovikin’s alliance figures as a minor footnote.
Stalin: “Death solves all problems, no man, no problem.”