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The Russian force in Ukraine probably includes two dozen generals who act as commanders and deputy commanders for the dozen or so combined-arms and tank armies the Kremlin has committed to the war.
In a month of bitter fighting, the Ukrainians have killed at least seven of those generals, along with an equal number of senior colonels. It’s a startling death toll — like something out of World War II. And it probably has resulted in days-long disruptions to the operations of front-line units.
But killing Russian generals with snipers, artillery and drones alone won’t end the war, even if the Ukrainians keep killing them at the current rate for months. That’s because eliminating senior leaders almost never actually cripples an army, insurgency or cartel. There always are junior leaders who are eager to replace their late forebears.
If anything, less experienced replacements tend to be more aggressive and extreme than the veteran leaders they replace. In that sense, killing Russian generals might actually make the fighting in Ukraine worse over the medium term.
Ukrainian officials claim seven Russian generals have died in combat since Russia widened its war in Ukraine the night of Feb. 23. The Russian government pointedly has confirmed none of these deaths.
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Most recently, the defense ministry in Kyiv on March 19 claimed its forces around Mykolaiv and Sumy, in southern Ukraine, had killed Lt. Gen. Andriy Mordvichev, commander of the 49th Combined Arms Army.
It’s worth asking why so many Russian generals have exposed themselves to enemy fire. You can’t hide from a TB-2 drone, but you can hide from a marksman with a rifle.
An unnamed Pentagon official addressed that question in a Friday briefing. “I mean, it’s not surprising to us to see that there are generals on the battlefield, given the way they man and organize themselves and that they don’t delegate very well,” the official said of the Russians.
“They do not invest a lot of responsibility in their junior officer corps, and they don’t have a non-commissioned officer corps to speak of the way we do, so there’s not a lot of battlefield initiative,” the official added. “And not to mention, they’re suffering—continue to suffer—from significant command-and-control problems … both in terms of an individual leader’s ability to command his troops in the field, but also the ability of commanders to speak to one another.”
It’s also possible Russian brass are hanging around battalions within range of enemy guns because those battalions are in need of the kind of motivation only an angry general can provide, in person. “We continue to get indications of morale problems that have, at times and places, been significant in terms of their battlefield performance,” the official said of Russian troops.
Losing so many generals and colonels surely isn’t helping the Russians’ morale. But the disruption is temporary and reversible.
There’s solid scholarship behind this assertion, including Andrew Cockburn’s 2015 book Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins. As Cockburn explained, eliminating enemy leaders often backfires.
If it had been paying attention, the U.S. government would have noticed that targeting drug kingpins in the 1990s actually increased narcotics supply by making room for younger, crueler drug lords — and more of them. The same principle applies to terrorists, insurgents … and Russian generals.
There’s no way that principle is going to stop the Ukrainians from killing Russian officers, of course. Ukraine is fighting for its existence. To the Ukrainians, the temporary confusion in a Russian combined-arms army that inevitably follows a general’s death is worth the risk of longer-term escalation once some hot-headed new boss arrives.
Likely far more damaging to the Russian war effort than the death of any one general is the apparent absence of a theater commander in the command structure of the Russian war effort.
Each of the dozen or so combined-arms and tank armies has its own commander and deputy commander, but there doesn’t appear to be anyone overseeing those commanders. Instead, the army-level leaders report directly to the politicians in Moscow, including President Vladimir Putin himself.
That’s unwise. Unity of command is a time-tested principle of war. “Unity of command requires a single commander with authority to direct all forces in pursuit of a unified strategy,” tweeted retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, a former head of the U.S. Army in Europe.
“A theater [commander] is the ‘operational artist’ of a campaign, blending science with art,” Hertling added. “They know the political strategy, and they plan the sequence and execution of the operations so that the tactical battles achieve the political strategy.”
More than the deaths of a few generals, the absence of a theater commander helps to explain Russia’s failure to capture any major Ukrainian cities after a month of bloody fighting.