by Katherine Bayford
Friday, 25
March 2022
Explainer
07:00

Why are so many Russian generals dying?

Soviet-era command structures are, strangely, still in place
by Katherine Bayford
Russian Major General Andrei Sukhovetsky was killed on 4th March, 2022

With news of his apparent death, Colonel Alexei Sharov has reportedly become the fifteenth Russian commander to be killed in the invasion of Ukraine. His death marks the country’s biggest loss of military leaders since World War II.

While Ukrainian figures for Russian casualties appear inflated, those same figures are significantly underreported from Moscow; Russia has not officially updated its casualty figures since stating that 498 servicemen were killed and 1,597 wounded three weeks ago. 

With conflicting claims abounding, there is no question that Russia is haemorrhaging senior military commanders — something that would be inconceivable to western military forces. Take America for example: twelve US generals were killed over a decade in the Vietnam War. Since the end of the Vietnam War, only one American general has died in combat: himself the victim of an insider attack by an Afghan soldier. 

A key reason for these losses can be attributed to a catastrophically rigid military command within the country. In the Russian military, generals are given broad authority: not only are strategic decisions made at their command level, but tactical too. Small-unit leadership is notoriously poor in the contemporary Russian army, with senior commanders generally expected to lead and manage from the front, thus leaving them much more vulnerable than their adversaries. Junior officers have traditionally been unable to exercise initiative, relying instead on an overly-involved general officer class for decision-making that would ordinarily be made at a much lower level.

Russian command structure — inflexible and suspicious of mid-level initiative — thus leads to a disproportionate level of top-brass deaths. But this is not new to the Putin era. Historically, senior Soviet military commanders have perished en masse — whether at the hands of Nazi Germany or the Soviet political leadership. On the 16th October 1941 alone, roughly 300 commanders were executed during the Battle of Moscow, some with their wives. Even Georgy Zhukov, arguably the Soviet Union’s greatest military leader, was lucky to survive Stalin’s purges.

And to this day, it remains a major problem. Lack of mid-level decision making and over-reliance on senior military command is embedded into the structure of Russia’s military. That is in spite of attempts to develop a professional enlisted component over the past few decades, the fruits of which have been relatively meagre. A recent 34 month course to produce good-quality, mid-level enlisted leadership produces just 2,000 graduates per annum, with training for most troops emphasising technical professional skills rather than broader leadership and management. 

Ukraine’s army has capitalised on the top-heavy makeup of the Russian army: with few trained leaders to replace them, Russian military leadership may well suffer in the months and years to come. As we pass the month anniversary of the invasion, Moscow may find itself regretting just how reliant its army is on senior military command.

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A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 months ago

Good article-ette thanks!
For the WWII nerds – they appear to be attempting Blitzkrieg but with a command structure like the French, Italian troops and logistics like, well, the Russians (circa 1941).
Joking aside it’s been really eye opening how badly the Russians have done the basics. Manoeuvre warfare requires exceptional logistics and command and control as a minimum – even more important than state of the art troops/equipment.
And even there it’s awful. No night fighting capability, no secured comms, no reliable functioning GPS (not least this significantly hampers effective air support and joint fires).

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
3 months ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

and perhaps no time to fix the issues…?
A comment picked up this week was thought-provoking: –
“Moscow imperialists can’t stand the thought of losing the war to Ukrainians. It means, to them, “Great Russians” being defeated by “Little Russians.” That’s why it’s likely Muscovy will escalate against NATO. Not because they will win, but because they will lose to a peer.”
followed by this: – https://news.sky.com/story/russian-diplomat-if-nato-threatens-us-we-have-the-right-to-press-the-nuclear-button-12573773
“Happy Friday All”….

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
3 months ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Yes I do remember reading in Major General Julian Thompson book on Dunkirk that the French command structure was very much centralised, which he said was a major contributory factor to the massive problems that they had on the ground.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
3 months ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Bad communications is almost a throwback to the World War I Russian Army, which communicated over radios without any encryption. The Germans listened in, and knew exactly what to expect. The early horrendous Russian losses are why Russia was knocked out of the war in 1917. All the professional soldiers needed to support the Czar, and put down the revolution, were dead by 1917. Draftees supported the revolution.

Last edited 3 months ago by Douglas Proudfoot
David Bell
David Bell
2 months ago

Russia blunders from one disaster to another.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
3 months ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

And unfortunately the Russians have no sense of human decency either, which is why they’re prepared to kill civilians with blunt weaponry now they’re being beaten by the Ukrainian army.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
3 months ago

The 1981 Pushkin Tu-104 crash killed 16 Admirals and Generals, plus other officers. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1981_Pushkin_Tu-104_crash

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Good knowledge.
Also I suppose – define commander? Corporals are commanders.
But even a colonel (12+ years service ) is very junior to a general (20+ years of service)

Last edited 3 months ago by A Spetzari
Mark Knight
Mark Knight
3 months ago

Also, targeting senior commanders is a Special Forces task. The Russian commanders are not only close to the front line they are being specifically, and successfully, targeted.

R S Foster
R S Foster
3 months ago
Reply to  Mark Knight

…I believe there is a Canadian chap out there who is really rather well-known in the field…although it is clear the Ukrainian men (and women) need no lessons from NATO. But I do hope we are keeping them well supplied with anything they might require…

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
3 months ago

The biggest Russian problem is logistics. They didn’t fully supply their units before the invasion, and had poor plans to resupply their forces inside Ukraine. The Ukrainians ambushed advancing columns, slowing down the advances. Then they shot up the supply convoys in the rear of the advances, leaving the combat troops short of fuel, ammo and food. The logistics shortages stopped the advances. Repeated ambushes inflicted disproportionate casualties on the Russians.

Halted advances led to Moscow insisting generals do whatever it took to pick up the pace. The generals moved closer to the action to push harder. They became more exposed to snipers, and other battlefield dangers. They got killed.

Any sudden change of command, especially one caused by a combat death, imposes a delay while the replacement flies in, figures out what’s going on, and then gives new orders. It might freeze a Russian unit for 3 to 5 days at least. Remember, the deputy commander is going to be risk averse until his new boss takes over.

Last edited 3 months ago by Douglas Proudfoot
Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
3 months ago

If the CO dies, logically it should be his deputy who takes over. Even the Russians can’t be dumb enough to be holding back replacement COs while there’s a war – sorry special operation – going on!

John Urwin
John Urwin
3 months ago

A similar article in The Conversation pointed out that there was corruption in the Russian army, possibly caused because their soldiers are paid 1/3 of the Ukrainian ones. Also that some were injuring themselves in order to be sent home. True? Who knows, in the fog of war…

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 months ago

In what world is generals leading from the front line a flaw?

Arild Brock
Arild Brock
2 months ago
Reply to  David McDowell

In the Western narrative flaws are defined by an adjective beginning with an “R”.

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton
2 months ago

During the American Civil War, both the United States Army and the Confederate Army lost a lot of command personnel because the Generals were out in the field with their men. A lot of quality officers were lost, but they were replaced by others, who by that time gotten quite a bit of battlefield experience.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
3 months ago

I was hoping for something more in depth. Given how little conscripts were aware of what the ‘special operation’ entailed, how much were their superiors aware of?
Also, much of the reporting about Russian soldiers being demoralised after a few weeks seems to forget that most of them were already encamped on the border for several months on some kind of ‘training’ exercises. If I was a young soldier waiting in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a Russian winter for several months I’d have already gone stir crazy!

Jeffrey Chongsathien
Jeffrey Chongsathien
3 months ago

If I want an opinion on how the operation is going, I’ll check out Col Doug MacGregor.

David Bell
David Bell
2 months ago

The guy’s a chump. I checked out his recent comments on the war. Events have proven him to be consistently wrong, fortunately, as he is utterly defeatist on Ukraine’s chances. If he had been in charge they would have surrendered on the first day of the war.

Last edited 2 months ago by David Bell
David Bell
David Bell
2 months ago

Thank God for Russian incompetence.

Neven Curlin
Neven Curlin
2 months ago

Russia has not officially updated its casualty figures since stating that 498 servicemen were killed and 1,597 wounded three weeks ago.

Oh, really? This is from last week:

Unfortunately, there are casualties among our comrades-in-arms during the special military operation. As of today, 1,351 servicemen have been killed and 3,825 wounded.

This was just an innocuous mistake. The rest of the article is full of assumptions. The author doesn’t know anything about how the Russian army functions.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 months ago
Reply to  Neven Curlin

Executing civilians, leaving land mines in houses on their retreat and indiscriminately shelling civilian areas seems to be how the Russian army functions

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 months ago

Montgomery invented the oh so previous ” O Group” or orders group, and its format, ” mission, ground, objective ( so long ago I cannot remember the order” with the ‘ mission’ always repeated twice. It took orders down from generals to platoon commanders and their sections. So many other nations just do not ” get’ this…. OR for that matters the plethora of commentators who have no experience whatsoever….

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 months ago

Oh so precious, not previous! Apologies