Clan struggle in the Kremlin: Valéri Guerassimov, an obstacle on Wagner’s road?

Vladimir Putin has decided to hand over to his chief of staff, Valéri Guerassimov, the keys to the battlefield in Ukraine. The new commander of operations will have to straighten out the military situation against a backdrop of a power struggle with the Wagner group. Impossible mission ?

Waltz of leaders against a backdrop of power struggle in Moscow. Just three months after being tasked with leading the war in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin had to give up his place on Wednesday January 11. And not just anyone. Russian President Vladimir Putin has chosen to entrust the fate of his “special military operation” in Ukraine to Valéri Guerassimov, his chief of staff of the armies.

It is therefore “the third most important man in the Russian military hierarchy – after Vladimir Putin and the Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu – who must redress the situation in Ukraine”, summarizes Jeff Hawn, specialist in Russian military issues and consultant exterior for the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research center.

More moderate than “General Armageddon”

Valéri Guerassimov is not only higher in rank than Sergei Surovikin. The two men are also reputed to have very different characters. The “outgoing” had been described as “brutal and cruel” or“executor without qualms”.

The new commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian front, meanwhile, has “a solid CV in Chechnya and Crimea, and he is considered to have a moderating influence on the course of the war. He is also someone with whom Americans can work,” says Jeff Hawn.

“He’s definitely not some kind of ‘General Armageddon’ like Sergei Surovikin, however I don’t know what impact he can have on the course of the war,” notes Stephen Hall, a Russian policy expert at the University of Bath. Indeed, “even if he wanted to, Valéri Guerassimov has neither the equipment, nor the means or the men to fundamentally change the way the Russian army does things”, believes Jeff Hawn.

>> To read also: “Evgeny Prigojine, the offensive of Putin’s ‘cook’ to win in Russia”

From a military point of view, the appointment of this general “essentially confirms that we can expect large offensives in the spring and that even Putin recognizes that there needs to be better coordination between the troops”, estimated on Twitter Mark Galeotti, specialist in Russian security issues. With his two hats – Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and Commander of Operations in Ukraine – Valéri Guerassimov is supposed to have all the tools in hand to improve this coordination.

Guerassimov sacrificed or Wagner weakened?

But this redistribution of roles is above all of political importance. It comes at a key moment in the struggle for influence between Evguéni Prigojine and his mercenaries from the Wagner group on one side, and the traditional army on the other.

The latter is not popular at the moment in Moscow. The war in Ukraine is not going as planned, and she “just suffered a humiliation with the Ukrainian bombardment at Makiivka“, notes Jeff Hawn.

On the other side, Evguéni Prigojine has been playing proud since what the Wagner group presented as “his victory” in Soledar in the Donbass. A posture that the Russian army did not appreciate: the staff hastened to specify that its paratroopers had greatly contributed to the fighting. Battles which, with all due respect to the Wagner group, still seem to be raging.

>> To read also: “Why Moscow wants to conquer Soledar at all costs”

But whatever the reality on the ground, the message received by ultra-conservative circles in Moscow – very critical of the army – is that the Wagner group has been at the forefront of one of the few Russian successes in Ukraine. . Evguéni Prigojine seems to have scored a point against his main rival in the Kremlin: Sergei Choigou, the Minister of Defense. “The two cordially hate each other, and every action should be seen as an attempt to weaken the other in the court of Vladimir Putin,” says Jeff Hawn.

In this context, the appointment of Valéri Guerassimov can be explained in two ways. The most obvious would be to see in it “a call to order addressed by Vladimir Putin to Evguéni Prigojine so that he does not believe that everything is allowed”, estimates Stephen Hall. The new operations commander is, in fact, one of Sergei Shoigu’s closest collaborators and “it’s a safe bet that he will leave the Wagner group much less freedom than his predecessor Sergei Surovikin, considered ideologically closer of Prigojine”, adds this specialist in the mysteries of Russian politics.

This appointment also lightens the weight a little on the shoulders of Sergei Shoigu. “He will no longer constantly have to deal with Sergei Surovikin who spent his time trying to plant knives in his back”, remarks Stephen Hall.

Textbook case of “poutinerie”

It would be a textbook case of “poutinerie”. The master of the Kremlin does not appreciate that one of the factions of his court takes the ascendancy too much and “starts to feel too comfortable in public”, adds Stephen Hall. Valéri Guerassimov would thus have received the authority to bring the Wagner group back into line a little.

But it is a poisoned gift that Vladimir Putin offered to his chief of staff. “From now on, he is on the front line and will no longer be able to blame others if the situation deteriorates further in Ukraine for the Russian army”, underlines Jeff Hawn.

It is not excluded that the new role of Valéri Guerassimov will also be his last before the exit door. “He is put in a position to fail, which will give Vladimir Putin the excuse to get rid of him and thus please ultra-conservative circles”, analyzes Jeff Hawn.

Valéri Guerassimov’s position is all the more delicate as he remains in Moscow. The new distribution of roles means, in fact, that he will have two seconds in Ukraine responsible for executing orders, one of whom is none other than… Sergei Surovikin. The latter “may very well try to continue to do as before on the ground, while soaping the board of Valéri Guerassimov”, estimates Stephen Hall.

This appointment is therefore puzzling. It would be both good and bad news for the Wagner group, would strengthen the Defense Minister’s clan while considerably weakening one of Sergei Shoigu’s best allies.

Welcome to the mysteries of Kremlin hallway intrigue in the era of Vladimir Putin. Because in the end, this decision is a textbook case of what the Russian president “does best: play his collaborators against each other, so that they are too busy tormenting each other, leaving the Russian president the role of referee”, notes Stephen Hall. Vladimir Putin sensed that the military setbacks in Ukraine risked turning against him. He therefore decided to put his big cats in the same arena, Ukraine.

Clan struggle in the Kremlin: Valéri Guerassimov, an obstacle on Wagner’s road?