Russia’s war is missing a battlefield commander, US officials say

WASHINGTON – Russia is conducting its military campaign against Ukraine from Moscow without a central war commander on the ground in charge, according to American officials who have been investigating the five-week-old war.

That approach may 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 has left Russia’s air, ground and sea units out of sync. Their disjointed battlefield campaigns have been plagued by poor logistics, plummeting morale and between 7,000 and 15,000 military casualties, senior US officials and independent analysts say.

It has also contributed to the deaths of at least seven Russian generals as senior officers are pushed to the front lines to solve tactical problems that Western militaries would leave to junior officers or senior enlisted personnel.

A senior American official said NATO officials and intelligence agencies had been waiting for weeks for a Russian wartime commander to emerge. Nobody did, leading Western officials to conclude the men making decisions are a long way from combat, back in Moscow: Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu; General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian military; and even President Vladimir V. Putin.

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

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

But conducting a military campaign from 500 miles away is difficult, US military officials said. The distance alone could mean that the fighting troops would be decoupled from the war plans made in Moscow. Instead of streamlining the process, Russia has created a military machine that cannot adapt to fast and nimble Ukrainian resistance.

A second senior American official said Russian soldiers, who were taught not to take a single step without explicit orders from superiors, were left frustrated on the battlefield while Mr Putin, Mr Shoigu and General Gerasimov continued to plot increasingly-of-touch -Strategy.

This top-down approach means Moscow relays instructions to generals in the field, who then relay them to troops who are instructed to follow those instructions regardless of the situation on the ground.

“It shows in the mistakes being made,” said retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who served as NATO’s top allied commander for Europe during the Kosovo war.

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

That the Russian planners who sent the Orsk into port failed to consider the potential danger shows that no one questions decisions from above, officials said. The troops at the bottom do not have the authority to point out strategic flaws that should be obvious, they said.

Military analysts said a complex chain of events, originating in a collapsed command structure that began in Moscow, led to the deaths of the Russian generals.

“I don’t see the kind of coherent organizational architecture that one would have expected given the months of exercises and probably even longer planning time leading up to the invasion,” said retired Gen. David H. Petraeus, who served as head of the organization’s Military Central Command and as supreme commander in Iraq and Afghanistan said in an email.

In an American wartime command structure, a four-star field commander would coordinate and synchronize all subordinate air, land, and naval forces, as well as special operations and cyber operations. The campaign would have a primary goal, a focus, with operations supporting that goal.

In the case of the deaths of some Russian generals, for example, the problem arose far from the battlefield when Moscow failed to respond quickly enough after Ukraine disrupted Russian communications, the analysts said.

Mr. Putin’s own dishonest portrayal of the Russian military’s mission may have affected his ability to pursue what the Russian president initially publicly presented as a limited military operation.

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

“The Colonel must admit his mistakes to the Captain,” General Clark said. “He’s like, ‘Maybe it took me too long to place an order.'”

After the Ukrainians heard him, General Clark said, the Ukrainians told him it couldn’t work. “They said, ‘We were taught in the Soviet system that information must be protected, and we lie to each other,'” he recalled.

Putin’s decision to send Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov into the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol this week for a victory lap, even though Mariupol has not yet fallen, shows the Russian president’s enduring belief that the greatest battle is the information battle, said Andrei soldatov, a Expert on Russian security services.

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

Russian officials are now signaling that Mr Putin could lower his wartime ambitions and focus on the eastern Donbass region, although military analysts said it remains to be seen whether that would represent a meaningful shift or a maneuver to divert attention ahead of another offensive.

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

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

“They don’t seem to have a coherent idea of ​​how much force it takes to defeat Ukraine’s regular and territorial forces in urban terrain and retain what they’re destroying or overrunning,” said Jeffrey J. Schloesser, a retired Two-Star -Army General who commanded US forces in eastern Afghanistan. “Hundreds of thousands more Russian or allied troops will be needed for this.” Russia’s war is missing a battlefield commander, US officials say

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