Three Russian commanders killed as Ukraine invasion force attempts to step up momentum

Russians switch to long-distance bombardment as tank columns get bogged down north of Kyiv

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Friday 04 March 2022 17:12 GMT
Kharkiv City in Ukraine severely devastated by Russian strikes
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Three commanders in Russia’s army have been killed after moving up towards the frontline in an apparent attempt to restore momentum to the invasion of Ukraine, according to Western sources.

The deputy commander of the 41st Combined Arms Army, Maj Gen Andrei Sukhovetsky, whose death from a probable sniper bullet was revealed on Thursday, is the highest-ranking member of the invasion force to lose his life after nine days of fighting.

Now Western officials have confirmed that a divisional commander and a regimental commander have also been killed, in what was described as a “surprising” development resulting from a breakdown in command and control systems.

It is believed that the senior officers may have moved from positions in the rear to unusually exposed frontline locations in an bid to impose their personal authority on a flagging advance, which has been beset with logistical problems and fierce resistance from Ukrainian troops.

Recent days have seen Vladimir Putin’s forces switch from their initial plan to take Ukraine swiftly with a “thunder road” drive to the cities to a more cautious and brutal tactic of bombardment, which has claimed many civilian lives.

The past 24 hours have seen a continued barrage of air and artillery strikes on Ukrainian cities, including residential areas, as well as the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, said Western officials.

One said that this was “probably a consequence of Russia’s efforts to mitigate the ongoing logistical difficulties and counter strong Ukrainian resistance”.

The opening days of the invasion have demonstrated severe shortcomings in the Russian army’s planning and execution of an operation which is larger than many of those involved have ever trained for, said the official.

Having failed to achieve air superiority on the first day, the invaders have been able to move only slowly and have suffered from problems with supply of fuel and food, numbers of desertions and a “significant” dislocation of command and control structures.

The 40-mile convoy of armoured vehicles north of Kyiv has effectively become “an enormous traffic jam”, virtually immobile for several days and vulnerable to attack from Ukrainian forces. The sheer scale of it - and the presence of abandoned and destroyed vehicles amid it - has made movements of vital supplies and engineering units difficult.

It is in these circumstances that senior officers appear to have felt obliged to venture forwards, said one Western official.

“My assessment is that they have been killed because they have had to go further and closer to the front, rather than them being killed in the rear of operations,” said the official.

“The reason why that is happening is that commanders feel they have to move further forward to get greater impetus and control over operations. I think that’s an indication of a degree of frustration, some degree of lack of progress.

“They are trying to impose their personality on the battlefield and putting themselves at personal risk.”

Maj Gen Andrei Sukhovetsky
Maj Gen Andrei Sukhovetsky (Alamy Stock Photo)

Western officials were aware of weaknesses in Russian military preparedness ahead of the Ukraine operation, but have been shocked by the flawed implementation of the invasion plan.

“What is clear is that the plan that the Russians were working to, they are not able to maintain the pace that they had planned,” said one. “They underestimated Ukrainian resistance significantly.

“They have had a range of challenges in the execution of the plan, all of which we knew were fragilities in the Russian military system. But they have somehow managed to have all of those fragilities play out simultaneously, which has led to the lack of progress, combined with that fierce Ukrainian resistance.”

The official said it was too early to say whether Moscow would eventually be able to take and hold Ukraine, or substantial parts of it. Much would depend on whether the Ukrainians were able to maintain the “remarkable” performance of the early days of the conflict.

The Ukrainians “deserve an enormous amount of credit for both the way in which they’ve fought and the operations and the tactics they’ve conducted,” said one Western official.

This map shows the extent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
This map shows the extent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Press Association Images)

“This has been, I think, a remarkable operation by them - something which has surprised and in some ways shocked the Russian commanders and is having a psychological impact on the Russian troops, as a consequence of the ferocity of the fight.”

In the past, Russian - and previously Soviet - military doctrine has always been to “reinforce success” and swiftly ditch tactics which appear not to be working, said the official.

“In this campaign, it’s been remarkable that they have continued to reinforce failure,” he added. “That lack of operational agility I find surprising.

“Perhaps it's one of the challenges of their command and control that is preventing them from being able to operate in a more flexible manner.

“That hammering away at the same objective and hoping to get a different result in different circumstances is perhaps defined as madness, but in military terms I found it certainly very surprising that they've done so.”

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