Russian war lacks a battlefield commander, US officials say

WASHINGTON — Russia is waging its military campaign against Ukraine from Moscow, with no central warfare commander on the ground to pull the strings, according to US officials who have studied the five-week-old war.

This centralized approach could largely explain why the Russian war effort has struggled in the face of stronger-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, officials said.

The absence of a unifying military leader in Ukraine means that Russian air, ground and sea units are out of sync. Their disjointed battlefield campaigns were plagued by poor logistics, low morale and between 7,000 and 15,000 military deaths, according to senior US officials and independent analysts.

It has also contributed to the deaths of at least seven Russian generals as high-ranking officers are pushed to the front lines to sort out tactical issues that the Western military would leave to junior officers or senior military personnel.

A senior US official said NATO officials and the intelligence community had spent weeks waiting for a Russian war commander to emerge. No one has, leaving Western officials to conclude that the men making the decisions are away from the fight, back in Moscow: Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu; General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of Staff of the Russian Army; and even President Vladimir V. Putin.

On Wednesday, Biden administration officials, citing declassified US intelligence, said Putin had been misinformed by his advisers about Russian military problems in Ukraine. The intelligence, US officials said, also showed what appeared to be growing tension between Mr. Putin and Mr. Shoigu, who was once one of the most trusted members of the Kremlin’s inner circle.

Russian officials disputed the claim by US intelligence, with the Kremlin calling it on Thursday a “complete misunderstanding” of the situation that could have “bad consequences”.

But it’s difficult to conduct a military campaign 500 miles away, US military officials said. Distance alone, they said, can lead to a disconnect between the troops fighting and the war plans being drawn up in Moscow. Instead of streamlining the process, they said, Russia has created a military machine incapable of adapting to a quick and nimble Ukrainian resistance.

A second senior US official said Russian soldiers, who had been taught not to make a single move without explicit instructions from their superiors, had been frustrated on the battlefield, while Mr Putin, Mr Shoigu and General Gerasimov continued to plot more and more. tactile strategy.

This top-down approach means that Moscow passes instructions to the generals on the ground, who then pass them on to the troops, who are told to follow those instructions regardless of the situation on the ground.

“It shows in the mistakes that are made,” said retired General Wesley K. Clark, who served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Europe during the Kosovo war.

Last week, Ukrainian forces blew up the Russian warship Orsk, which had docked in southern Ukraine. Describing the incident, General Clark asked, “Who would be crazy enough to moor a ship in a port” before first securing the area?

That the Russian planners who sent the Orsk into port were inattentive to the potential danger shows that no one is questioning decisions from above, officials said. Troops below are not empowered to point out strategic flaws that should be obvious, they said.

Military analysts said a complex chain of events, stemming from a broken command structure that begins in Moscow, led to the deaths of the Russian generals.

“I don’t see the kind of cohesive organizational architecture one would have expected given the months of exercises and probably an even longer planning period before the invasion,” the general told the retired David H. Petraeus, who served as head of the Army’s Central Command and as commander-in-chief in Iraq and Afghanistan, said in an email.

In an American warfare command structure, a four-star field commander would coordinate and synchronize all subordinate air, ground, and naval forces, as well as special operations and cyber operations. The campaign would have a primary objective, a center of gravity, with operations supporting that objective.

In the case of the deaths of some Russian generals, for example, the problem arose far from the battlefield, when Moscow did not react quickly enough after Ukraine blocked Russian communications, analysts said.

Mr. Putin’s own dishonest portrayal of the Russian military’s mission may have hurt his ability to continue the effort, which the Russian president initially presented publicly as a limited military operation.

General Clark recalls teaching a class of Ukrainian generals in 2016 in Kyiv and trying to explain what a US military “after action review” was. He told them that after a battle involving American troops, “everyone got together and broke down what happened.”

“The Colonel must confess his mistakes in front of the Captain,” General Clark said. “He says, ‘Maybe I took too long to give an order.'”

After hearing it, the Ukrainians, General Clark said, told him it couldn’t work. “They said, ‘We were taught in the Soviet system that information has to be kept and we lie to ourselves,'” he recalled.

Mr Putin’s decision to send Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov to the beleaguered Ukrainian city of Mariupol this week for a victory lap despite the fact that Mariupol has yet to fall demonstrates the Russian President’s abiding belief that the biggest battle is that of information, said Andrei Soldatov, an expert in the Russian security services.

The feared Chechen “is a general, not a real military commander,” he said, adding, “It shows that what Putin still believes is that propaganda is the most important thing here.”

Russian officials are now signaling that Mr Putin may reduce his war ambitions and focus on the eastern Donbass region, although military analysts have said it remains to be seen whether this will constitute a significant change or a maneuver to divert the attention before another offensive.

The Russian military has already committed more than half of its total combat forces to combat, including its most elite units. Moscow is now calling in reinforcements from outside Russia, including Georgia, as well as mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military company, in eastern Ukraine.

Mr Putin also signed a decree calling up 134,000 conscripts.

“They seem to have no coherent concept of how much force it will take to defeat Ukrainian regular and territorial forces in urban terrain, and to hold onto what they destroy or invade,” said Jeffrey J. Schloesser, a two-star army retiree. general who commanded US forces in eastern Afghanistan. “Hundreds of thousands of additional Russian or allied troops will be needed to do this.”

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