According to a report published by the RAND Corporation on the institutional structure of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov's position in the Russian power structure has been significantly strengthened in recent years. At the same time, the General Staff, under his leadership, has played an increasingly important role in national security decision-making and enforcement.
The rise of the General Staff, the central military governing body of the Ministry of Defence, which exercises operational control over all of Russia's armed forces, is attributable to two key factors. First, Putin's decision to militarise Russian foreign policy has increased the value of the General Staff's professional expertise. Second, the operations coordinated by the General Staff in Syria and Ukraine (prior to the full-scale invasion in February 2022) proved to be an effective foreign policy tool, helping to strengthen Moscow's position in the international arena. According to military analyst Michael Coffman, the Russian Armed Forces have significantly expanded their capabilities, mobility, combat experience, combat readiness, and structure under Gerasimov. According to the RAND report, a main underlying factor for this was a shift in policy: a reliance on force as a primary foreign policy tool instead of economic and diplomatic means.
Gerasimov gained public attention with his 2013 article, in which he outlined modern hybrid warfare methods. According to the head of the General Staff, these include the preparation of ‘colour revolutions’, financing of political opposition, and the use of various proxy agents, among them private military companies (PMCs). Following Russia's annexation of Crimea and the start of the ‘hybrid’ (unconventional) war in eastern Ukraine, the article gained traction among Western experts, even giving rise to the myth of the ‘Gerasimov doctrine.’ Although the existence of such a doctrine was eventually disproved, the views expressed in this article echoed the Russian political leadership's ideas on the nature of internal political conflicts, which they invariably interpreted as the result of external interference and an instrument of foreign policy confrontation.
Gerasimov was appointed Chief of the General Staff in 2012, just days after Shoigu was appointed Defence Minister. According to the RAND report, this choice was motivated not by the nepotism inherent within the Russian political elite but by his professional qualities. There exists a certain symbiosis between the Minister and the Chief of Staff: the position of one strengthens the other, and vice versa. At the same time, Shoigu's personal relationships and years of loyalty to Putin have increased the influence of the Ministry of Defence and, consequently, that of the General Staff.
The growing influence of the General Staff can be seen, for example, in the establishment of a new structure under its control in 2014, the National Defence Management Centre of the Russian Federation (NDMC RF). The General Staff has been able to broaden its interagency impact beyond the military sphere as a consequence of this new organisation. This is particularly evident in the General Staff's involvement in tasks such as fighting forest fires and rolling out ‘covidaries’ (pop-up COVID field hospitals).
Although personal relationships are essential to critical national security decisions, bureaucratic rules and procedures take precedence when it comes to practical military matters, according to the RAND report. This is what determines the key role of the General Staff. In other words, a decision to use force reflects the political leadership's will. However, its ability to perform meaningful oversight over the military is limited. As a result, the General Staff now has a plethora of passive and active options at its disposal to influence and shift political decision-making processes after the fact. For example, the General Staff decides which forces and armaments will be available to carry out specific decisions, which can then modify this decision at the discussion stage or even later, at the execution stage.
Formally, Putin as Commander-in-Chief or Shoigu as Minister of Defence may issue orders to any military unit. However, in practice, these orders would still be routed through the General Staff. The Ministry of Defence is a supporting rather than controlling agency, when it comes to control over the General Staff: the General Staff determines what the armed forces require in terms of equipment and supplies, while the Ministry of Defence handles logistics, financial, medical, and other issues, such as the acquisition of weapons and military equipment.
In sum, the strength of their relationship is determined by the combination of Shoigu's informal leverage, Putin's personal trust in him, as well as the formal mechanisms available to Gerasimov to mobilise necessary resources.
Analysts have recently observed the institutional strengthening of the General Staff, and have additionally described its levers of influence, thus shedding new light on the relationship between the military and political leadership in today's Russia. The role of the General Staff in the planning of the invasion of Ukraine and military operations has remained one of the most intriguing mysteries in Russian politics over the past year, particularly in light of the conflict that emerged between the military leadership and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the patron of Wagner PMC.
Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, the relationship between the General Staff and the political leadership has been somewhat ambiguous. According to Washington insiders and a recent leak of secret Pentagon documents, there were certain disagreements between the Kremlin and the General Staff on the eve of the war. Valery Gerasimov allegedly opposed and sought to prevent a full-scale invasion. Regardless, the Russian grouping in Ukraine lacked a commanding officer for the first eight months of the invasion. Gerasimov (along with Shoigu) appeared in a video with Putin just three days after the full-scale invasion, and Putin ordered them to place the country's deterrence forces on a special duty regime. The next video of them together, which was captured in early September 2022, at the height of the Russian army's failures in Ukraine, shows Putin explicitly avoiding communication with Gerasimov, as observers have noted. Soon after, General Sergei Surovikin was appointed head of the Russian grouping in Ukraine, with the enthusiastic support of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had already launched a campaign criticising the military leadership at the time.
According to sources quoted by The Bell, the idea of creating PMCs originated in the depths of the General Staff, and this included the idea of using Yevgeny Prigozhin as a vehicle for its implementation. According to media reports, Wagner PMC received support from the Ministry of Defence and participated in the Syrian campaign in 2015-2016. However, Prigozhin's relationship with the military eventually soured. Prigozhin's military contracts were dramatically reduced, and the PMC participated in the Syrian campaign only under an agreement with the Syrian government and without Russian military support.
The invasion of Ukraine and its setbacks fueled the fires of this conflict, which came to a head in late 2022, during the active fighting over Bakhmut, when Prigozhin's fighters (and the man himself indirectly) accused the military leadership of failing to provide them with fire support and of intending to ‘destroy Wagner PMC.’
Despite a wave of criticism directed at him by Prigozhin's organisations, Gerasimov was appointed commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine in early January 2023. As commander of the grouping and head of the General Staff, he has consolidated all these resources and powers in his own hands. He has become the ‘one-stop shop’ for interaction between the political leadership and the military.
According to the analysts from RAND, given the secrecy surrounding the preparations for the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, the General Staff was forced to rely on the proxy forces operating outside of formal chains of command and military institutions. Russia had previously employed such tactics in Donbas and Syria, but the scale of those operations pales in comparison to the current one. In these circumstances, the General Staff has been forced to abandon its model of centralised control in favour of decisions made at lower levels. And this risks uncontrollable consequences, as witnessed in the case of the downed flight MH17, where the decision to use heavy weaponry which had been transferred to proxies by the military was made by the proxies' own commanders, according to the report. Gerasimov's appointment as commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine appears to have been designed to return control of military operations to the hands of the General Staff and the Ministry of Defence.
Ultimately, Gerasimov only needed a little over two months to deprive Prigozhin of any leverage. His removal from prisoner recruitment and the high losses suffered by Wagner PMC fighters during the unsuccessful months-long battle for Bakhmut (with minimal support from the military command) undermined both Wagner's potential and notions of its political influence. According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Shoigu and Gerasimov are now attempting to seize the opportunity to crush both Wagnerites and Prigozhin's political ambitions. In March, there were reports in the press that Wagner PMC would instead focus on operations in Africa in the future. Meanwhile, military officials are now carrying out recruitment of prisoners for new PMCs, which are managed by the Ministry of Defence and the General Staff.
The story of Shoigu and Gerasimov's success in their confrontation with Prigozhin, which appears to have been achieved with the support of other influence groups within the Russian security services, as well as their ability to maintain complete and centralised control over all military resources, positions them as a critical actor on the Russian political scene, particularly within the context of a protracted military conflict.While speculating about possible scenarios for the development of the war and the ways in which the conflict might end, observers both inside and outside Russia tend to view the available options in favour of one or another particular scenario as solely Putin's personal decisions. However, in light of this analysis and the demonstrated ability of the Shoigu-Gerasimov tandem to assert their monopoly in the organisation of a military campaign, such a perspective appears, if not simplistic, then at the very least incomplete. In any case, it was the military, first through General Rudsky, Head of the General Staff's Operations Department, and then through Shoigu, that announced the end of the ‘first phase’ of the ‘special military operation’ in March 2022, i.e. the transition from the plan to capture all of eastern Ukraine as far as Kyiv to a limited ‘war for Donbas.’