Analysis: Why so many Russian generals are getting killed on the front lines

This is a question that we’ve posed here before and it’s been the subject of many debates among foreign policy analysts over the past month. A conservative estimate provided by a European diplomat and intelligence analyst suggests that five Russian generals of various ranks have died in the fighting in Ukraine. An aide to Ukrainian President Zelenski put the number at six this week. No matter which is correct, that would be the largest number of Russian generals to fall in battle since World War 2 and it’s all happened in barely a month. So what’s the reason for the high number of casualties among Russia’s top brass?

Some have suggested that poor tactics on the part of the Russians have allowed Ukrainian forces to encircle them from behind. Others have posited that Russia’s troops are just so untrained and raw that the generals have had to move to lead from the front. Still others are blaming it on the basic incompetence of the Russian army. At Foreign Policy Magazine, Jack Detsch offers some analysis suggesting that it could be a combination of all of the above, with some fundamental technical glitches thrown in for good measure.

Russia has lost at least five generals fighting in Ukraine in less than a month, Western officials said Monday, as communications failures and a lack of discipline among hundreds of thousands of conscripted Russian troops have made it more difficult to communicate orders to the front lines…

“They’re struggling on the front line to get their orders through,” said the European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss recent battlefield intelligence. “They’re having to go to the front line to make things happen, which is putting them at much greater risk than you would normally see.”

The European diplomat said the Russian death toll among general officers is up to a fifth of the number of commanders deployed in Ukraine, which Western intelligence officials estimate at 20 officers, making the military less able to operate and more bogged down.

One factor that Detsch points to is the decrepit electronic communications systems that the Russians brought with them. In order to “lead from behind,” the Russian generals need to be able to get their orders to the front lines and be aware of Ukrainian movements on the battlefield. Those systems are reportedly failing on a regular basis, leaving the generals unaware of troop movements that could put them in danger.

But that’s not the only failure. The Russian troops are being described as largely conscripts, most having little or no formal military training and almost no combat experience. Even when the orders make it through, they don’t always all follow them. So, as previously speculated, some of the generals feel compelled to head for the front lines and direct them in person.

Tactical errors have also been cited. Maj. Gen. Vitaly Gerasimov, a one-star equivalent, was killed by Ukrainian snipers after the defenders heard the Russian commander complaining about faulty communication equipment on an unsecured radio channel. His location was revealed and the defenders quickly moved to take him out. So that death likely resulted from a combination of poor equipment and faulty tactics.

One retired U.S. Admiral is quoted as saying that the Russians mostly appear to just be “winging it” in terms of their strategy. The far more serious issue, however, may be that so many of the troops are conscripts who were hastily put into uniforms and handed rifles and shipped off to the conflict. Troops with no training can’t be expected to know how to handle themselves in a hot zone. Videos from Ukrainian citizens have emerged on social media showing Russian troops fleeing through the streets after meeting stiff resistance, showing no strategic tactics one would normally expect to see during an organized retreat. That led to many of them being gunned down before they could get away.

If the Russian army is really as unprepared and poorly supported as we’re hearing, perhaps an eventual Russian victory isn’t as likely as many have been predicting. Or at least until Putin decides to break out some WMDs.

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