Soviet-era command structures are, strangely, still in place
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.
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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.