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Putin purges top generals over failure to capture Kharkiv and sinking Moskva of Black Sea Fleet

Turmoil in top ranks of the Russian army as 'culture of cover-ups and scape-goating' becomes prevalent by James Kilner – in Chisinau, Moldavia - for the Telegraph - 19 May 2022

Vladimir Putin has reportedly sacked a top-level commander for “failing” to capture Kharkiv, the latest purge of senior officers who he blames for botching his war in Ukraine.

Lieutenant General Serhiy Kisel was head of the elite 1st Guards Tank Army, which was charged with taking Ukraine’s second-biggest city.

But he has now been “suspended for his failure to capture Kharkiv”, according to the British Ministry of Defence.

The commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, Vice-Admiral Igor Osipov, is also believed to have been suspended following the sinking of the flagship the Moskva last month.

Putin may also have already lost confidence in his most senior general in Ukraine, Valeriy Gerasimov, as his Ukraine campaign falters, according to the MoD.

"In recent weeks, Russia has fired senior commanders who are considered to have performed poorly during the opening stages of its invasion of Ukraine," the MoD said in a briefing note on Thursday.

"A culture of cover-ups and scape-goating is probably prevalent within the Russian military and security system," it added. "Many officials involved in the invasion of Ukraine will likely be increasingly distracted by efforts to avoid personal culpability for Russia’s operational set-backs."

"This will likely place further strain on Russia's centralised model of command and control, as officers increasingly seek to defer key decisions to their superiors."

Lieutenant General Serhiy Kisel was head of the elite 1st Guards Tank Army

The 1st Guards Tank Army can trace its roots back to the Soviet Union's defence of Stalingrad in World War II, a battle credited with turning the war against Nazi Germany. It was disbanded in 1999 but reformed in 2014 as an elite unit.

Commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet Igor Osipov has also reportedly been suspended Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

But Russian forces have been forced to retreat from around Kharkiv over the past week after months of heavy bombardment failed to break stiff Ukrainian resistance, Moscow’s second major defeat of the war. At the end of March, Russian forces also retreated from around Kyiv.

Kharkiv had been considered to be a key early objective for the Russian army which subjected it to a sustained bombardment. Intelligence agencies have said that Russia may have pulled back its forces from Kharkiv to relocate them to the eastern Donbas region, now a priority target.

The poor performance of the Russian army has shocked Western analysts. They have said that the Russian military has appeared to lack direction, motivation and the proper equipment to achieve its objectives of capturing Ukraine.

A lack of experience and empowerment among the Russian army's cadre of non-commissioned officers, so important in modern Western armies, and battlefield tactical tinkering by Putin have also hampered its performance.

And these failures have frustrated Putin, who has looked to shift blame. He has already sacked his famed FSB secret service, the direct successor of the Soviet Union's feared KGB, for its intelligence failings ahead of the war and instead handed the job of spying on Ukraine to the military's GRU spy unit.

In April, to much fanfare, Gen. Gerasimov was made the head of the military campaign in Ukraine, previously split between different commanders.

He is considered to be one of Putin's favourite commanders after a successful, and brutal, war in Syria in 2015-16.

Now even his job also appears to be under threat. The Ministry of Defence said that it was unclear if Gen. Gerasimov "retains the confidence of President Putin".

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Putin is looking to deflect blame for the war's failures Credit: REUTERS

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