Here’s why so many Russian generals and commanders are dead in Ukraine?

President Vladimir Putin’s generals are getting picked off, one by one. More than twenty senior commanders have reportedly been killed in the first three weeks of the Ukraine war. And the reasons reveal catastrophic corruption and incompetence at the highest levels.

Unreliable electronics. A burgeoning black market. Subordinates are too terrified to make decisions. It all may have been lucrative and convenient in peacetime but kickbacks and cronyism are killing Russia’s top battlefield commanders.

“They’re struggling on the front line to get their orders through,” an anonymous European diplomat told Foreign Policy. “They’re having to go to the front line to make things happen, which is putting them at much greater risk than you would normally see.”

The death toll is heavy.

Russia is believed to have deployed 20 senior commanders to Ukraine. Losing six of them may help account for the apparent widespread chaos and confusion.

“This is in the first three weeks. These are quite senior generals. The bottom line is their command and control has broken down,” says disgraced former US army general and CIA director David Petraeus.

And that means Russia’s generals have to get their hands dirty.

Russia’s Major General Vitalii Gerasimov, whom Ukraine claims to have killed outside Kharkiv. Photo by SCMP

“The communications have been jammed. The column gets stopped, and an impatient general goes forward to see what’s going on,” Mr Petraeus says. “There’s no initiative, no non-commissioned officer corps, no sense of initiative at junior levels. They wait to be told what to do, and the Ukrainians have very, very good snipers …”

Severed heads

Ukrainian officials have shared pictures on social media showing the corpse of a senior Russian general left lying among the mud and debris after his command staff fled.

“The tally of Russian generals killed in the nearly month-long conflict – most of them one- and two-star commanders, including at least one lieutenant general – is likely the highest casualty rate among general officers in the Russian military since World War II,” says Foreign Policy national security analyst Jack Detsch.

The death of a general is significant. Especially in Mr Putin’s paranoid Russia.

They take with them an understanding of what the mission’s objectives are. Each one is a member of a small cabal trusted to issue orders. They’re also a crucial source of military experience.

The United States lost one general in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of the early 2000s. In 2014, Major General Harold Greene was killed when an Afghan National Army soldier opened fire on a group of dignitaries.

So far, Moscow has admitted the death of only one commander – Major General Andrey Sukhovetsky. But among those claimed killed is Major General Vitaly Gerasimov – the nephew of Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s top military chief.

“(Their death) is also hugely symbolic and provides a clear example to the Russian rank and file that their enemies can target senior leadership with ease, demonstrating a failure of the system to protect their senior staff,” says the UK’s Birmingham City University’s Jonathan Jackson. “It is a clear symbol of a weak and incompetent communication system that is forcing generals to move from strategic to tactical decision making.”

Failure to communicate – no data link

It could be sloppiness. It could be desperation. But Russia’s senior commanders have been using unencrypted radios and mobile phones to get their troops back on track.

And that’s exposing their locations. And intentions. The core of the problem appears to be faulty – and missing – long-range military encrypted radios.

“The impression provided by the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) over the years has been that this equipment was widespread and that the majority of the Russian Armed Forces (RuAF) were operating digital radios and systems designed to facilitate planning and decision-making,” the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think-tank states in a recent report.

This claim is supported by reports of Russian troops stealing Ukrainian mobile phones – Russian prefixes have been blocked – in order to talk to their commanders.

These, and commercial-grade radios, are easy to locate and listen to.

“It seems bizarre that units advancing into Ukraine during this dangerous phase of the operation would not be outfitted with the best equipment, including radios, that Russia’s defence industry has to offer,” the RUSI report concludes.

One reason, RUSI says, could be related to fraud and embezzlement charges initiated against the radio manufacturer last year. Indications are the radios are considered unreliable. And their battery life is unexpectedly short.

“That troops may feel more confident using a cheap Chinese handheld radio would say much about the quality of Russian equipment,” RUSI says.

And their encryption functions may have proven popular among Russia’s organised crime gangs. “Russian forces had sold much of the best equipment during the early months of their deployment to Ukraine border in 2021, due to poor pay and conditions,” adds Mr Jackson.

Broken chains of command

Russia’s military does things differently. Western armed forces usually position generals and their command staff well behind the front lines. Their job is the big-picture strategy stuff.

Their frontline subordinates are trained to use their own judgment and initiative to overcome unexpected tactical hurdles. But the initiative is anathema to the Kremlin’s authoritarian regime.

“Its rigid hierarchical system, overseen by an autocratic leader in Vladimir Putin, condemns junior ranks to a chain of perpetual fear, with little allocated for independent thinking or decision-making,” says Mr Jackson.

But Russia’s military also lacks combat experience. “It makes sense they would have senior leaders or even general officers in the field for an invasion of this size and scale, for them anyway,” a Pentagon official said Tuesday. “They haven’t done anything on this size and scale really ever.”

“They don’t have an equivalent to a non-commissioned officer corps. Their junior officers don’t have the same wherewithal and flexibility,” the Pentagon official said. “They don’t invest in their junior officers the kind of initiative that we do.”

And that’s another reason why Russia’s invasion may have stalled. “Putin manages the military in much the same way as he does the wider Russian state, choosing loyalty to him above professional competence,” the security expert says.

Subordinates are afraid of making decisions. Mid-level ranks lack experience and confidence. So generals – denied effective communications – have to get into the firefight themselves to maintain momentum.

“There’s direction coming from on high: You better get your ass out there and make progress or else,” says retired US Admiral James Foggo. “Their military chain of command is a very threatening kind of environment. You either perform, or you find yourself replaced or out of a job – or even worse.”

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