Russia ordered its top general on Wednesday to take charge of its faltering invasion of Ukraine in the biggest shake-up yet of its malfunctioning military command structure.
It did so as Russian forces struggled to cement their control of the small east Ukrainian salt-mining town of Soledar after taking heavy casualties, a day after the leader of the Wagner contract militia said the town was under Russian control.
Wagner is one of a number of semi-autonomous Russian forces whose high profile on the battlefield after more than 10 months of war has underlined the ineffectiveness of Russia’s core military in a campaign the Kremlin had expected to finish in days.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had appointed Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov as overall commander of forces for what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The move not only made Gerasimov directly accountable for the fate of the campaign but also in effect demoted General Sergei Surovikin, nicknamed “General Armageddon” by the Russian media for his reputed ruthlessness.
Surovikin had been named Russia’s top battlefield commander in Ukraine only last October following a series of Ukrainian counter-offensives that began to turn the tide of the conflict.
One of his first actions was to pull Russian troops out of the right bank of the Dnipro River and the provincial capital Kherson, the only one they had managed to capture in Ukraine since launching their invasion in February.
The ministry’s statement said the changes were designed to increase the effectiveness of the operation, and that Surovikin would become Gerasimov’s deputy.
Russian and Ukrainian forces were engaged in intense fighting on Wednesday over Soledar – a stepping stone in Moscow’s thrust to capture Ukraine’s entire Donbas region – albeit with the Russians appearing to have the upper hand.
Wagner, which has spearheaded the assault, on Tuesday claimed to have taken control of the town although pockets of Ukrainian resistance were holding out in the centre.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Wednesday that airborne units had cut off Soledar from the north and south.
But Ukraine denied that the town, which had a pre-war population of around 10,000, had fallen.
“Heavy fighting continues in Soledar,” Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar, wrote on Telegram.
“The enemy has again replaced its units after sustaining losses, has increased the number of Wagner fighters and is trying to burst through our forces’ defence and fully seize the city, but is not having success.”
The Kremlin also stopped short of claiming victory and acknowledged heavy casualties.
“Let’s not rush, let’s wait for official statements. There is a positive dynamic in progress,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Although tactical successes are also very important, they come at a high price, at the cost of the fantastic heroism of our fighters.”
Reuters was unable to independently verify the situation in Soledar. But a Reuters photographer who reached the outskirts in recent days said many residents had fled along roads out of the town in perishing cold.
She said plumes of smoke could be seen rising over the town and the incoming artillery fire was relentless.
With the war now in its 11th month, Russian commanders have targeted Soledar as a platform to attack the nearby city of Bakhmut, which has held out for months against a Russian onslaught and is a hub for supply lines in eastern Ukraine.