Gen. Valery Gerasimov will take over from Sergei Surovikin, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday on Telegram, a change that comes as Kyiv warns it is planning a major new offensive after months of battlefield setbacks for Moscow.
Surovikin became the first person to be handed sole charge of the campaign in October, and his tenure has been marked by the aerial bombardment of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, as well as Russia’s retreat from the crucial southern city of Kherson.
The Defense Ministry said he would be one of Gerasimov’s three deputies, along with army Gen. Oleg Salyukov and Col. Gen. Alexey Kim, as part of a new “joint group of forces.”
It added that the “increase in the level of leadership” was “related to the amplified range of tasks” and the necessity of closer cooperation between branches of Russia’s armed forces.
Britain’s Defense Ministry called Gerasimov’s appointment “a significant development” in Putin’s approach to the war.
His deployment was “an indicator of the increasing seriousness of the situation Russia is facing, and a clear acknowledgement that the campaign is falling short of Russia’s strategic goals,” it said on Twitter.
Although the move effectively demoted Surovikin, nicknamed “General Armageddon” by the Russian media for his reputed ruthlessness, Gerasimov’s appointment had not come about because Surovikin is viewed as a failure, said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank.
The apparent demotion was possibly “driven by political reasons,” Lee added on Twitter.
The Kremlin’s forces meanwhile appeared close to a breakthrough in bitter fighting on the eastern front lines.
Battles continued to rage around Soledar, a devastated salt-mining town that has seen one of the fiercest and costliest recent ground battles of the nearly 11-month war.
Ukrainian officials said the country’s soldiers continued to hold out despite heavy fighting and a Russian mercenary group’s claim to have captured the town.
NBC News has not verified the claims of either side.
Taking the town would most likely be seen as a significant, if costly, victory for the Kremlin, which has suffered embarrassing defeats on the battlefield and signs of disquiet at home as the war approaches the one-year mark.
The area is in the Donetsk province, one of four that Putin illegally claimed to have annexed in September, and it is notable for its vast disused mine tunnels.
Although it has little intrinsic value, it lies at a strategic point around 6 miles north of the city of Bakhmut, which Russian forces are aiming to surround.
Taking Bakhmut would disrupt Ukrainian supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to press toward Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, key Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk province.
However, Michael Kofman, the director of Russia Studies at the CAN nonprofit research organization in Arlington, Virginia, said on Twitter that he did not think the outcome at Bakhmut was “that significant compared to what it costs Russia to achieve it.” He added that the costs could impinge on Russian military strategy.
However, he said, the battle could also “impact Ukraine’s offensive plans.”
As the war approaches its anniversary on Feb. 24, more attention is turning to who holds the upper hand in the conflict. Kyiv argues it cannot win without increased heavy artillery and tanks from its Western allies.
Meanwhile, Moscow maintains that its “special military operation” is going to plan despite numerous setbacks since the invasion.
The U.S. has said it would supply Bradley Fighting Vehicles to the front line; other countries have made similar pledges.