The dismissal last week of General Ivan Popov, head of a central unit of the Russian defense system in Ukraine, is having effects on the ground, says the Institute for the Study of War. Above all, it is symptomatic of the dysfunctions of the Russian army. Is it holy bread for the Ukrainian counter-offensive?
Slowly but surely. On Wednesday, July 19, Ukrainian forces claimed to have grabbed a few kilometers of ground in three sectors of the counteroffensive. Advances registered mainly in the region between Zaporizhia and Berdiansk, a port city in the south, which has been occupied by the Russians since the beginning of the war.
A defense zone that for almost a week has experienced a military psychodrama that is very revealing of the current dysfunctions of the Russian army. Indeed, it is in this region that “the effects of the dismissal of General Ivan Popov are still being felt”, the analysts of the Institute for the Study of War emphasized in their daily update of July 18 on the fighting in Ukraine.
On the front line against the Ukrainian counter-offensive
A week ago, this officer was at the head of the 58th combined army, that is, “one of the largest and most active formations in the military theater of southern Ukraine”, emphasizes Jeff Hawn, a specialist in Russian military issues and an external consultant for the New Line Institute, an American geopolitical research center.
General Popov’s men are on the front line to repel the Ukrainian attacks in the Zaporijjia region, one of the main operational locations for the counterattack on Kiev.
This important cog in the Russian defense system was not launched due to poor results on the front. “At the moment, Russian officers stationed in southern Ukraine seem to be doing a pretty good job as their troops are effectively resisting the Ukrainian army,” said Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist on the Ukrainian-Russian conflict at the University of Glasgow.
It seems that he was too openly critical of his hierarchy. In an audio recording posted online on July 13, he assures his men that he was being punished for complaining to the Ministry of Defense about a lack of supplies of artillery equipment and ammunition.
In addition, “he would also have been sanctioned for trying to speak directly to Vladimir Putin without going through Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, to demand a rotation of soldiers at the front because his people had been fighting too long without stopping,” says Jeff Hawn.
The Secretary of Defense would not have appreciated this attempt to short-circuit his authority and would have dismissed him from his functions in Ukraine to send him to Syria. A version of the facts which, if true, illustrates “a number of significant problems in the Russian army”, assures Huseyn Aliyev.
First, the decision by the Russian Ministry of Defense means that “Sergei Shoigu is sanctioning the officers for political rather than military reasons, since the 58th combined army in this case is defending itself quite well”, judge Jeff Hawn.
In the aftermath of the failed Prigozhin mutiny
Then the criticism formulated by Ivan Popov confirms the Ukrainians’ suspicions about the Russian reserves. If Moscow is unable to organize the rotation of soldiers for such a decisive formation as the 58th combined army, it is because there is a shortage of combat-ready men. In other words, if Ukraine manages to pass the first line of defense, “it is likely that it will face little resistance at the level of the second and third lines of defense,” estimates Jeff Hawn.
Finally, Ivan Popov “talks about the same discourse as Yevgueni Prigojine (the leader of the Wagner group mercenaries behind a failed rebellion against the Russian military command, ed. note)”, Huseyn Aliyev notes. Ivan Popov’s exit demonstrated very publicly, and for the first time, that regular army officers could share Yevgeny Prigozhin’s opinion about the Ministry of Defense.
To what extent is this feeling shared by the ranks of the Russian army? Hard to say, but mibloggers – these Russian military commentators often from the ultra-nationalist movement very active on social networks – remember that since the beginning of July there have been serial dismissals of generals (not confirmed by Moscow). The latter seems to have lost confidence in Sergei Choigou or his right-hand man Valeri Guerassimov, who is in charge of operations in Ukraine.
Thus, the rumors on Telegram indicate that Major General Vladimir Seliverstov lost command of the 106th Guards Airborne Division, as did Major General Alexander Kornev, who headed the 7th Airborne Division. Ramil Ibatullin, who commanded the 90th Armored Division, was even arrested in recent days, the Institute for the Study of War reports.
“Such a series of firings is not in the normal order for an army involved in a very intense conflict. It is the signal that there are important internal battles at the moment”, assesses Huseyn Aliyev. For him, it is a direct consequence of the failed uprising of Wagner’s mercenaries.
“This episode was an accelerator. It showed that Sergei Shoigu and Valeri Gerassimov were not in a position of strength, otherwise Yevgeny Prigojine would have been arrested. Something to give ideas to officers who until now preferred to keep their criticism to themselves,” analyzes this expert.
Dismissals of dodgy generals
But the authorities’ response – firing or arresting officers – is militarily risky. The soldiers in question were at the head of units that were often crucial to the war effort in Ukraine. “The airborne divisions concern, for example, paratroopers, elite units that are often used in Ukraine in important operations,” explains Huseyn Aliyev.
It is hard to say whether this internal struggle is already having effects on the ground. The Institute for War Studies suggests so, explaining that this waltz of officers – although it is not known whether they have all been replaced – will not simplify communication and coordination on the battlefield. “You have to realize that the Russian army is very centralized.
That is, every decision has to be validated by all levels of the chain of command. So officers like Ivan Popov have to give a lot of orders, which from now on have to be reconfirmed,” explains Jeff Hawn. It is far from ideal when it comes to responding quickly to changing circumstances in such contested terrain as southern Ukraine.
For the moment, “we do not have the impression of witnessing a collapse of Russian defense due to these problems”, however, wants to qualify Huseyn Aliyev. The Russian front line is still holding, with a few cracks here and there. Maybe because the orders so far are pretty simple to follow: hold, hold and hold again.
But “in the long term, the combination of officers chosen for their loyalty rather than their competence, a lack of equipment and a still rather low morale cannot produce good results”, concludes Jeff Hawn.