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Vladimir Putin Decides He Is a Better General Than His Generals

As the Red Army closed in on der Führerbunker, Adolf Hitler tried to ward off the inevitable by giving orders to divisions and regiments that had long since disappeared into the meatgrinder of the Eastern Front. In the dark days of the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson whiled away the dwindling days of his failed presidency by personally selecting the targets to be bombed in North Vietnam. Jimmy Carter was involved in the tactical details for the abortive hostage rescue mission into Iran known as Operation Eagle Claw, or Desert One. Now we’re hearing of another failed political leader donning the hat of a tactician and running his own war; that would be Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Putin is making low-level tactical decisions that would normally be decided by an officer in charge of as few as 700 Russian troops, western military sources say.

A military source said that Putin and General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, were dictating basic movements of their forces in Ukraine.

“We think Putin and Gerasimov are involved in tactical decision-making at a level we would normally expect to be taken by a colonel or a brigadier”, the source said.

“Western military sources” may or may not be a meaningful qualification, but when we put this together with some other stories, perhaps we can get a closer peek at the truth.

There were multiple reports of a politico-military shakeup in Moscow in late April. Vladimir Putin, we were told, would hand off domestic policy to his deputy and devote his massive, superhuman brain to winning the war in Ukraine. The chief of the Russian military’s general staff, Valery Gerasimov, was told to take charge of the running of the war (see Russian Army in Ukraine Undergoing Major Command Shake-Up, Sources Say). The upshot of that experiment was Gerasimov nearly being splattered across the landscape (Mysterious Ammunition Dump Explosion Rocks Russia and Did Ukraine Nearly Kill Russia’s Top Military Officer?),

Another story came out last week that definitely has the ring of truth, Russian generals turning on each other to avoid Putin’s purge, says Ben Wallace. The Ben Wallace in the headline is the British Defence Secretary, so, as sources go, that is pretty solid.

During a visit to Finland, Ben Wallace said military leaders were blaming each other for the “disaster” and feared being purged if the “quagmire” turns into a panicked retreat.

Military chiefs in the general staff were the scapegoats for President Putin’s failed invasion, he said, adding that those in the military system were “always terrified they are about to be purged and pushed out”.

“There is a point of tension in the system. As much as they respect the former KGB man [Putin] for being a strong leader, the Russian general staff are going to be made scapegoats for his mess.

“He [Putin] would be foolish, potentially, to blame Gerasimov and the other generals for what is predominantly a politically, emotive-driven invasion defying all logic. It’s a political decision he took, not a military one, and he needs to wear that decision.”

There is no one close to Putin who has told him to abandon plans to seize Ukraine, Wallace said, adding that the war could “very quickly turn from a quagmire to a rout” if the Russians collapse like they did north of Kyiv.

It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how in any bureaucracy, you want to avoid being around a project that starts to look like a failure. It isn’t enough that you, yourself, avoid the taint (ewwww), but you have to avoid colleagues who might be tainted. General officers would be keenly aware the situation in Ukraine has deteriorated to the point that even the Russian-bot accounts on Twitter and Telegram are complaining about how slow and in the wrong direction things are moving. Knowing that the commander-in-chief was the prime mover for the invasion and has a habit of whacking people who get out of line (6 Russian Oligarchs Commit Suicide in Mysterious Outbreak of Epstein Syndrome), you’d do well to run like the devil from anything vaguely concerned with Ukraine.

We cannot empirically evaluate this story’s accuracy, but we can say it is highly plausible. This war is Putin’s baby. He wasn’t snookered into invading; he’d made his mind up months earlier. In retrospect, Putin telegraphed this war in his June 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” you can read the original essay here or a good analysis of the essay’s meaning here. He might have been fed information shaped to conform to his preconceived notion of how an invasion would play out, but autocrats collect sycophants; if you want the truth, you can’t be in the business of killing messengers. We do know that a day into the war, he showed signs of discomfort (Putin Shows Signs of Panic, as He Calls on Ukraine Military to Mutiny) and that rumors flared about Putin purging FSB officers who’d provided the intelligence assessment on Ukraine (Trouble in Paradise: Putin Arrests Senior FSB Officers Over Ukraine Fiasco).

If Gerasimov was chased out of Ukraine by a volley of artillery shells, it is easy to see Putin looking over the shoulder of the field commander and telling him what to do. If the generals fear a purge, you can easily see them doing exactly what they are told and creating a paper trail to prove their obedience.

As I’ve mentioned before, my gut feeling is that Putin sees himself as the smartest guy he knows and has unshakable faith in his ability to maneuver. You can easily imagine Putin, rather than Barack Obama, saying, I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.” That kind of hubris and a realization that one’s political life, or real life, might depend upon a successful military outcome could easily lure a politician into deciding that he’s a better general than his generals.

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