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It seems like we are only hearing from Putin about the military operations. When we hear about Russian generals it's about them getting killed, like Sukhovetsky, deputy commander of 41st Army.

Which Russian general is operationally in charge, at a military level? How come we don't hear anything from them?

For example, in Gulf War, whatever the US political decision makers, Schwarzkopf was in charge. Schwarzkopf wasn't the top general in the US Army, but he was the guy running the show in Iraq.

During the Iraq invasion in 2003 it was Tommy Franks. At some point later it was Petraeus. Decisions were made by POTUS, but implementation strategy and tactics were left to the commander in charge and at any time you could easily look up who that officer was.

The reason for this curiosity is that the "special military operation" doesn't seem run as per Russian military doctrine and some of it just seems counterintuitive like the half hearted pursuit of air superiority. So one wonders how much input the military commanders - not the Defense Minister - have on the operation. It's almost as if the thing is micro-managed from the very top.

Not having their names put forward reinforces that impression, but then I confess I am unsure how that diverges from regular Russian practice when conducting military operations.

For example, who exactly was in overall charge of Grozny in 1995 is also unclear - Grachev was Defense Minister which I wouldn't see as operationally in charge. You can see who led each of the four columns heading into Grozny, but it's unclear who their immediate superior was managing the overall operation.

To clarify: 41st Army, which is participating, is about as big a unit as they come. Who is tasking its commander with missions to accomplish in Ukraine at the present? is the subject of this question.

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  • Fred Karno, I believe.
    – WS2
    Mar 14, 2022 at 0:16
  • "How come we don't hear anything from them?" Might have something to do with expectations within Putin's bubble and how reality has played out, thus far. I'm not sure I'd be looking for the spotlight or any attention if it were me. Mar 24, 2022 at 20:42

4 Answers 4

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As of March 2022, this information has not been made public. In fact, on March 22, 2022, CNN had posted an article saying just that.

This is not inconsistent with the rest of what is known about this war. It's been widely argued that even the true goals of the war are not known, either. Much of the causes and goals of the war are cloaked in mystery despite numerous speculations.

While some of the speculations stand up to fact checking, there is no consensus on which events, or trends of events, have been key causes of the war. Russia has not, for example, made any demands of Ukraine which would preclude the war from happening or end the war should those demands be met. Nor has Russia made public whether it intends to make Ukraine a vassal state or to annex it if Russia succeeds in its conquest.

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    @Italian Philosophers 4 Monica's I think the commanders have changed a few times. While my answer was confirmed at the time it was written, some of the other answer here are more up to date. They probably deserve the "accepted" check more than this answer does.
    – wrod
    Oct 13, 2022 at 3:29
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They just keep changing him all the time.

  • Recently, from 11 January 2023, the role have been returned back to Valery Gerasimov.

  • Sergei Surovikin, appointed in October 4 2022. Also known as "General Armageddon", he led the Russian military campaign in Syria, where he was accused of a brutal bombardment that destroyed much of the city of Aleppo. He launched massive rocket strikes over electric power stations of Ukraine, destroying about 40 % of its energy grid and leaving millions of civilians without electricity, heat and water. Cherson has been lost under his commandment.

  • Before Sergei Surovikin, this post was held by Gennady Zhidko. A former vice-minister of defence, that has been appointed to give the military "institutional firepower in Moscow", to make sure it gets the economy it needs.

  • Before Gennady Zhidko, this post was held by Alexander Dvornikov, who as The Guardian says was also appointed with the goal "to bring more brutality".

  • Before Alexander Dvornikov, the post was held by by Valery Gerasimov who was not "a young, well-promoted tyro in the fashion that the Red Army often produced" (as analyzed by London military strategists) - likely this means, the least brutal.

But this may change again.

The accepted answer states "it is unknown" but the referenced article from CNN is dated March 22, 2022 so old. It may be that it has been unknown or uncertain at that time.

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  • I'd make this a table with date ranges...
    – einpoklum
    Dec 22, 2023 at 20:07
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+100

TL;DR: (October) It now appears that Russia is rotating its commanders in overall charge of operations in Ukraine, with the initial commander at the start of the operation still officially unclear. However, since then there have been numerous announcements of new commanders placed in charge overall.

In October, Russian Defense Ministry announced the appointment of Gen. Sergei Surovikin as overall commander in Ukraine.

...

I would say this is partial as others say, this information is not very forthcoming.

It is also a question that a good many others have been asking, and so I post a link to the BBC article:

Ukraine conflict: Who's in Putin's inner circle and running the war?

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-60573261

(Putin)... As commander in chief, ultimate responsibility for the invasion rests with him, but he has always relied on a deeply loyal entourage, many of whom also began their careers in Russia's security services. The question is who has his ear, during this most fateful moment in his presidency?

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu

If anyone does, it is long-time confidant Sergei Shoigu, who has parroted the Putin line of demilitarising Ukraine and protecting Russia from the West's so-called military threat.

"Shoigu was supposed to be marching to Kyiv; he's minister of defence and was supposed to win it,"

He was credited with the military seizure of Crimea in 2014. He was also in charge of the GRU military intelligence agency, accused of two nerve agent poisonings - the deadly 2018 attack in Salisbury in the UK and the near-fatal attack on opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Siberia in 2020.

Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov

As chief of staff, it was his job to invade Ukraine and complete the job fast, and by that standard he has been found wanting.

He has played a major role in Vladimir Putin's military campaigns ever since he commanded an army in the Chechen War of 1999, and he was at the forefront of military planning for Ukraine too, overseeing military drills in Belarus last month.

"Putin cannot control every road and every battalion, and that is his role."

https://www.wsj.com/articles/russias-military-chief-promised-quick-victory-in-ukraine-but-now-faces-a-potential-quagmire-11646582366

Russia’s Military Chief Promised Quick Victory in Ukraine, but Now Faces a Potential Quagmire

The close Putin ally modernized Russia’s forces, but those troops have run into ferocious Ukrainian resistance

Additional:

The bombing of Ukraine is commanded by Russian General Surovikin

https://investigator.org.ua/news-2/240505/

(https://whatisyournameinsider.com/news/249108)

The bombing of Ukrainian cities during the Russian invasion is led by the Commander-in-Chief of the Aerospace Forces of the Russian Federation, Army General Sergei Surovikin, who personally led the column of armored vehicles during the August 1991 coup in Moscow, following the orders of the so-called GKChP.

In 1995, Surovikin, then a major, was found guilty of several crimes by the Military Court of the Moscow Garrison. The future general was accused of complicity in the acquisition and sale, as well as carrying firearms and ammunition without a permit. These articles of the then Criminal Code provided for up to 8 years in prison, but he was given only one year of probation.

It is also known that in 2014 the commander of the Eastern Military District, Colonel General Sergei Surovikin, worked in the Rostov region, where he led the dispatch of tank units subordinate to him to the southeast of Ukraine.

Surovikin was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Aerospace Forces of the Russian Federation in November 2017. December 8, 2017 Surovikin was awarded the title of Hero of Russia for the courage and heroism shown in the performance of military duty in Syria. He was awarded the Order of St. George IV degree, Courage, "For Military Merit" and a number of medals.

In 2021, the Commander-in-Chief of the PKS of the Russian Federation, Surovikin, was awarded the rank of Army General by decree of Vladimir Putin.

https://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/58485/

Mezhidov's new video points to Kadyrov fighters' secondary role in Ukraine

Chechen special fighters continue screening localities in Ukraine, Khusein Mezhidov, the commander of the battalion "Yug" (South), has reported.

https://min.news/en/military/6351b31ca481e8b8e4c905b649dbdd11.html

https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/ukraine-conflict-russian-military-adapts-command-and-control-for-ukraine-operations

The Ukraine operation is integrated at a strategic level at the National Defense Control Center, which is inside the Russian Ministry of Defence building in central Moscow.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was filmed by the TASS news agency on 1 March participating in a video conference from the centre with his senior operational commanders.

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Additionally:

Russian commanders were starting to adapt their operations and senior officers are increasingly moving up to front line areas to bring order and “impose their personality” to bring improvements to the operation. The increasing need for senior officers to visit the front has resulted in one army deputy commander, as well as a division and a regimental commander, being killed by Ukrainian fire.

Additional on how hard it is to work out the decision making process:

https://www.rferl.org/a/putin-tight-hawkish-circle/31705183.html

..there has always been a lot of guesswork in determining who might have influence over the president's decisions -- and it has only gotten harder since the pandemic due to Putin's limited personal interaction with officials.

Unlike the United States, Putin's Russia has no "regularized interagency process" in which foreign and security officials are present and making decisions. While Putin receives information and is presented with options from various individuals, it is difficult to tell "who actually influences the decision among those options,"

"It's more the last person that Putin talked to, rather than some kind of collective consensus of the foreign and security policymaking elites,"... "The whole bunker presidency just makes it even more complicated."

More about Putin's shrinking group of advisors, including Shoigu:

https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-purges-in-putins-shrinking-inner-circle

...Ten years ago, Putin listened to at least several dozen different kinds of people. It might have been a very strange collection of characters: at one point, it was a film director with crazy ideas about the Russian imperial past. And, at another point, it was a journalist who was a big fan of Pinochet. There were some priests. So it was a multitude of people, but now it looks like, starting in 2016, 2017, this circle has been getting smaller and smaller. And what I’m getting from my sources is that, these days, Putin listens to only three or four people. There is Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu, whom he trusts, and that is why Shoigu has played the main role in this invasion.

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2022-02-26/man-behind-putins-military

Not only is the campaign being shaped by an army that has openly embraced war—...it is also being led by Shoygu, a man who has so far experienced only successes and who lacks the proper military training to understand that a battlefield victory, no matter how impressive, can sometimes lead to an even larger political defeat

The role of the military in Putin’s foreign policy (February 2021)

When, for instance, the Russian military attacks civilian targets in Syria, flies or sails perilously close to the aircraft or naval vessels of other states... We should instead, presume that the military is faithfully carrying out political orders.

This person has popped up:

https://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/russia-ukraine-war-bloody-past-of-colonel-mikhail-mizintsev-dubbed-butcher-of-mariupol/HEDMW6ZQ5E3DXHAP2LUSEI6T24/

Russia-Ukraine war: Bloody past of Colonel Mikhail Mizintsev dubbed 'Butcher of Mariupol'

The man believed to have orchestrated the devastating attack on Mariupol has been identified as Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev.

Officially known as the Russian National Centre for Defence Management director, the high-ranking military official has been dubbed the "Butcher of Mariupol".

Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Col Mizintsev was also involved in orchestrating Russia's involvement during the Syrian Civil War between 2015 to 2016.

Working as the Director of the Russian National Centre for Defence – a role he's had since 2014 – it's highly likely that Col Mizintsev was a key part in orchestrating Russia's military strategy.

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/butcher-of-mariupol-inflicts-brutality-he-learnt-in-syria-qg79f3xjk

‘Butcher of Mariupol’ inflicts brutality he learnt in Syria - Commander who called for officer’s ears to be cut off is blamed for strikes on schools and hospitals

https://twitter.com/nexta_tv/status/1506206539060858887

Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, who previously headed the #Russian military operation in Syria, is personally in charge of the siege of Mariupol.

https://politiko.al/english/bota/leshoni-armet-gjeneralkoloneli-rus-mikhail-mizintsev-i-ben-thirrje-rezisten-i456204

As I say this is partial, so still open.. (expecting DV's but just wanted this to be here as I hadn't seen it posted yet)

Edit 23 March 2022:

The other accepted answer has linked this today too: https://edition.cnn.com/2022/03/21/politics/us-russia-top-military-commander-ukraine-war/index.html

https://thehill.com/policy/international/599080-us-unable-to-determine-russian-commander-leading-war-in-ukraine-report

US unable to determine Russian commander leading war

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/putins-army-leaderless-say-us-defence-offi

Putin’s army leaderless, say US defence officials

In short it leads me to some thoughts:

while it is possible that Russia has quietly designated a top commander to oversee the invasion — the state of combat operations would suggest "he's inept,"

And leads me to two individuals:

Putin and Shoigu.

  • Putin because he has surrounded himself with yes men and those who fear him and would rather please or appease him rather than give good, sound - if painful - advice, and this would lead to bad military decisions, for which, Putin, who is not a traditional military command leader, is not experienced in that role to do (despite FSB taking lead roles in previous small scale operations).
  • Shoigu, for much of the same military-experience laxking reasons as above - he is inexperienced and not a real military commander, even more so as he is not even ex FSB. OTTOMH Shoigu is a civil engineer, not a commander rising up through the ranks of the military machine.

Whilst he has been in this position he has led a program of modernization, one that also led to changes in doctrine, often looking like (look at the reorganisation of Spetsnaz for example) he has been taking notes from Western SOF. Those changes may have worked at small scale in the past abut at this scale, the Russian war machine looks less capable.

There could be a third, but you can assume this to be someone expected to take the fall for the perceived failures in this operation.

The point is, that the Russian military, under Shoigu/Putin, changed in how it fights post Georgia in 2008. Since, the, despite the reported successes in previous small scale campaigns, the new model Russian army has never really been tested. Those changes were not really put to the test until now. And at this ambitious size it is exposing how it is not quite ready to fight a war this way.

After all this I expect to see some scapegoating..

My personal feeling is that perhaps if they had fought it the traditional Soviet way from the start, for which they are equipped, with a real Soviet/Russian military commander in control, they might well have been in a different position than they are now.

Edit:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/24/russian-defence-minister-resurfaces-on-tv-but-for-just-a-few-seconds

https://www.newsweek.com/russian-defense-minister-sergei-shoigu-missing-war-ukraine-1691379

The Russian defence minister, arguably the man most responsible for the floundering war effort in Ukraine, had not been seen in public for 12 days. Nor had the chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, Valery Gerasimov.

Rumours were beginning to circulate that they may have been punished over the bungled invasion, which has failed to capture key Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv or Kyiv and plunged Russia into economic isolation.

Some reports have also suggested that he may be under house arrest, along with others at the forefront of the fledgling invasion of Ukraine.

Update since March:

April, May, and June:

https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-june-25

Spokesperson for the Russian MoD Igor Konashenkov stated on June 24 ...that Army General Sergei Surovikin, commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces, commands the ”southern” group of forces and oversaw the encirclement of Hirske and Zolote.

The Russian MoD’s announcement confirms ISW’s assessment from June 21 that the Russian high command is reshuffling and restructuring military command

The UK MoD confirmed that the Russian command has removed several generals from key operational roles in Ukraine, including Commander of the Airborne Forces (VDV) Colonel General Andrei Serdyukov and Commander of Russia’s Southern Military District Alexander Dvornikov, who was likely was acting as overall theatre commander.

Previously reported in April, Dvornikov, the Russian general who helped turn tide of Syrian war: (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/10/alexander-dvornikov-russian-general-who-helped-turn-tide-of-syrian-war)

The Russian general appointed by Vladimir Putin to lead efforts to reboot the invasion of Ukraine played a prominent role in the Syrian war, where forces under his command were responsible for widespread abuses against the civilian population and were frequently accused of committing crimes against humanity.

Gen Aleksandr Dvornikov, 60, has been described as an “old school” general and a “blood and soil nationalist”, trained in Soviet military doctrines that view obliterating civilian targets as a means of gaining battlefield momentum.

It was not stated who Dvornikov replaced, if any (and if it was indeed micro-managed by Putin, they are unlikely to say so).

By June, Dvornikov was reportedly out:

General Dvornikov ‘no longer in command’ of Russian Army in Ukraine - CIT

More than a week ago, the CIT team learned from Russian soldiers that General Dvornikov was no longer in charge of "the military operation" in Ukraine. He has been replaced by General Gennady Zhidko, who is the former commander of the Eastern Military District, and now is the head of the Main Military-Political Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces.

https://odessa-journal.com/bellingcat-investigator-why-putin-doesnt-trust-general-dvornikov/ indicated that Putin had a greater influence in decision making in the conflict.

October 8:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/07/russia-military-commanders-dismissed-war/

Russian Ground Forces Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, who over a 44-year military career was best-known for scorched-earth tactics in campaigns he led in Syria and Chechnya, was named overall operational commander of the war in Ukraine in April. He lasted about seven weeks before being dismissed as part of what appeared to be a wider shake-up in response to heavy losses and strategic failures.

According to Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), an independent group that has been monitoring Russian military activities in Ukraine since 2014, Col. Gen. Gennady Zhidko took over from Dvornikov in May as the overall commander of the Russian war.

Dvornikov’s dismissal may have been linked to the destruction of the 58th Combined Arms Army, normally stationed in the southern Vladikavkaz, which was lauded as one the most combat-ready Russian armies and key to the invasion of Georgia in 2008, BBC’s Russian service reported.

But Zhidko, who also held the title of deputy defense minister, in what appears to be a damning trend for generals in Ukraine, was in charge for about a month before more problems emerged, and he was demoted to the head of the Eastern Military District.

It remained unknown who exactly was in charge of the war until Saturday (October 8), when the Defense Ministry announced the appointment of Gen. Sergei Surovikin as overall commander in Ukraine.

https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-names-air-force-general-lead-its-forces-ukraine-2022-10-08/

Russia names air force general to lead its forces in Ukraine

Russia's Defence Ministry on Saturday named Air Force General Sergei Surovikin as the overall commander of Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, Moscow's third senior military appointment in the space of a week.

The ministry did not say who, if anyone, Surovikin was replacing.

British military intelligence said in April that General Alexander Dvornikov had been appointed to take charge of Russian forces in Ukraine, almost two months after Moscow began what it calls its "special military operation", in an attempt to "centralise command and control".

However, Moscow itself has not specified that anyone is in overall military command of the operation.

Back in April, after the announcement of Dvornikov's replacement, it was noted (by CIT) that "It could be a result of a casual rotation. We saw the Russians doing the same thing in Syria".

Essentially Putin is going to rotate commanders in charge of the 'special operation' until he gets the results that he desires.

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    Valery and Sergei are too high up for this question. They're political, not direct military planning in the sense that Schwarzkopf was. Upvoted, but not really the answer. Unless it is a micro-management clusterf**k which this does look a bit like. Mar 13, 2022 at 22:57
  • I agree, but I noted that of any military staff, those are the ones we hear from. Granted the whole structure is very different from what we are used to in the West and that is why it is a great deal harder to work out who is doing the real work. Still looking... 'micro-management clusterf**k' was at the top of my head though..! Appreciated the patience though! Mar 13, 2022 at 23:00
  • Someone authoritative saying that those 2 or Putin seem to be in direct charge of military operations would be what I am looking for however. Mar 13, 2022 at 23:11
  • 1
    I recall a transcript from Defense Minister Shoigu meeting with Putin, ends in ".. exercises that were planned and launched on your instruction..." - not much in and of itself but it sounds like micro management.. Mar 14, 2022 at 3:02
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CNN wrote in April that

Army Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, commander of Russia’s Southern Military District, has been named theater commander of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. [...]

Dvornikov, 60, was the first commander of Russia’s military operations in Syria, after Putin sent troops there in September 2015 to back the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. During Dvornikov’s command in Syria from September 2015 to June 2016, Russian aircraft backed the Assad regime and its allies as they laid siege to rebel-held eastern Aleppo, bombarding densely populated neighborhoods and causing major civilian casualties. The city fell to Syrian government forces in December 2016.

Assigning a new overall commander for Russia’s war in Ukraine may be an attempt to create a more cohesive strategy. CNN previously reported that Russia had no theater-wide commander for Ukraine operations, meaning units from different Russian military districts have been operating without coordination and sometimes at cross purposes, according to two US defense officials.

The US has previously assessed Putin would likely name a general whose forces have been operating in Ukraine’s south because that is where the Russians have taken and held more territory, as opposed to the Russian bid to encircle Kyiv and cities in northern Ukraine, an effort that recently ended with a withdrawal.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, after the setbacks for Russia on the ground this fall, and number of calls for the military leadership to be replaced, the previous theater commander was replaced with Sergey Surovikin. In another interesting parallel with Syria, Surovikin is apparently credited (by Russian sources) with turning around the war in Syria.

Under the command of Surovikin, a significant turning point in the fight against the Syrian opposition was achieved. The Syrian Government regained over 50% control of Syria by the end of 2017 after a string of successful military campaigns. According to several Russian military commentators, it was Surovikin who managed to turn the tide of the war in Syria.

It's also interesting that despite being an army general, Surovikin has previously commanded the Russian Aerospace Forces. Whether this will mean more emphasis on air force or missile strikes in the long run, it remains to be seen. Surovikin's appointment did coincide with the Russian long-distance counter-trikes against Ukrainian cities for the explosion in the Crimean (Kerch Strait) bridge, although it's quite possible his appointment was decided before that. According to Reuters, this counter-strike was the "biggest [round of] air strikes since start of Ukraine war", targeting the electricity infrastructure in Ukraine (among other targets--central Kyiv was also hit), forcing blackouts and a suspension of Ukraine's electricity exports to Europe. OTOH Putin himself took credit for ordering the "massive" retaliatory strikes. FWTW:

Ramzan Kadyrov, the staunchly pro-Kremlin leader of Russia's Chechnya region who had recently demanded that military commanders be sacked, wrote: "Now I am 100% satisfied with how the special military operation is being conducted."

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