President Vladimir Putin has resorted to firing some of his most experienced and senior military generals in a sign of increasing strain and internal disharmony over his war tactics.
Russian Army figures are being made scapegoats for the Kremlin’s faltering mission in Ukraine, according to British intelligence.
Twelve weeks after the Russian leader ordered troops and tanks across the border, his plan to capture key cities and vast areas of territory is behind schedule. After scrapping his attempt to take Kyiv in March, Mr Putin’s forces suffered another humiliating blow this month in their failed attempt to take control of Kharkiv.
In an intelligence update issued on Twitter, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) said Mr Putin’s dissatisfaction with the overall progress was evident by his sacking of military figures. His actions are likely to have triggered fear among other Russian military personnel who, in an attempt to avoid blame, may hold back on making big decisions.
“In recent weeks, Russia has fired senior commanders who are considered to have performed poorly during the opening stages of its invasion of Ukraine,” the MoD said.
“A culture of cover-ups and scapegoating is probably prevalent within the Russian military and security system.
“Many officials involved in the invasion of Ukraine will probably be increasingly distracted by efforts to avoid personal culpability for Russia’s operational setbacks."
This will probably "place further strain on Russia's centralised model of command and control, as officers increasingly seek to defer key decisions to their superiors. It will be difficult for Russia to regain the initiative under these conditions”, the ministry said.
The ministry noted that Lt Gen Serhiy Kisel, who commanded the elite 1st Guards Tank Army, was suspended over his failed mission to capture the eastern city of Kharkiv, which is 40 kilometres from the Russian border.
Vice Admiral Igor Osipov, who commanded Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, was also probably suspended in the wake of the sinking of the Moskva in April, the MoD said.
The 510-crew missile cruiser had led Russia’s naval assault on Ukraine, and its sinking was a major blow to Moscow. It sank on April 14 after being struck by two Ukrainian anti-ship missiles. Moscow said the ship sank after a fire on board.
Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and First Deputy Defence Minister, is likely to have survived President Putin’s cull of top brass, the MoD said. But the ministry noted that it is not clear whether Gen Gerasimov “retains the confidence of President Putin” 12 weeks into the invasion.
Oleksiy Arestovych, a veteran of military intelligence and one of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s inner circle, last week claimed that Gen Gerasimov had been ousted from his post.
“They are deciding whether to give him time to fix things, or not,” Mr Arestovych told dissident Russian lawyer and politician Mark Feygin during a discussion on YouTube.
Mr Arestovych also claimed that Lt Gen Kisel had been arrested and sacked after the Russian Army’s operation in Kharkiv flopped.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is behind schedule and not going according Moscow’s plan, western intelligence has repeatedly said.
President Zelenskyy said the invaders’ use of so-called “laser weapons” is a clear sign of their failure. His comments came after a Russian official claimed the technology ― capable of downing drones ― was being “widely deployed” in Ukraine.
In his nightly video address, Mr Zelenskyy mocked the admission, saying it “clearly indicates the complete failure of the invasion” and shows that Russian leaders "are afraid to admit that catastrophic mistakes were made at the highest state and military level in Russia".