Russian President Vladimir Putin has frequently expressed admiration for Josef Stalin, very consciously linking his image with that of the late Soviet leader, whom Putin credits with “defeating Nazism” and saving Russia.
This linkage—of the old regime with the new—has advanced to the point where RIA Novosti, the state-run news agency, has run opinion pieces suggesting that criticism of Stalin is “not just anti-Soviet but is also Russophobic, aimed at dividing and defeating Russia.”
The mirroring of the Putin regime with that of Stalin may take an even darker turn in the wake of this past weekend’s Wagnerite attempted coup. Images of crowds cheering on the Wagnerites may be disturbing to Putin, but the images of border guards and Russian military units waving on the Wagnerite convoys en route to Moscow are an existential threat.
Any dictator’s regime is dependent on a compliant military.
Stalin’s response to any perceived threat to his regime was brutally direct. The Great Purge of 1936-38 is estimated to have claimed as many as 1.2 million victims. But one lesser-known impact of the Purge was how it left the Soviet Army woefully unprepared for the Nazi Invasion of 1941.
Russia may be about to decapitate its already depleted and crucial mid-level officer corps even as Ukrainian attacks in numerous Russian sectors heat up. Ukraine has made additional tactical advances on the Tokmak and Velyka Novosilka fronts, and Ukraine has continued to reinforce a small force that has landed on the left (eastern) bank of the Dnipro River around Kherson.
Russia has launched a local counterattack in the Donetsk region that has made minimal gains, and new Private Military Companies have reinforced Bakhmut. PMC Patriot (associated with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu), PMC Fakel (associated with multinational energy corporation Gazprom), and PMC Veterans are now known to be arriving in Bakhmut.
We will focus on the Velyka Novosilka and Kherson fronts in today’s update.
Velyka Novosilka represents a rapidly escalating battle. At the start of the counter-offensive in early June, Ukraine had committed three light infantry battalions to this sector of the front. Since that time, Ukraine has committed three armored brigades (4th Tank, 23rd/31st Mechanized Brigades) with numerous additional heavy armored brigades geolocated to the rear of this area.
Russia has similarly heavily reinforced this area starting with three infantry brigades, which have been strengthened by two brigades of “elite” naval infantry and a motor rifle battalion. A heavy commitment of reserves may represent as much as half of Russia’s operational reserve units.
Two units committed in this area bear mentioning.
First, the 501st Battalion of the 35th Marine Brigade, which has been detached from the main body and is operating independently at the far right (west) of the Ukrainian advance.
The 501st BN has a rather infamous unit history and is in its second iteration during the Russo-Ukrainian War. The first iteration was fought as part of the defense of Mariupol in February and March 2022, but on April 4, the entire unit’s 277 surviving soldiers surrendered to Russian forces.
A subsequent investigation of the incident by the Ukrainian State Bureau of Investigation absolved the soldiers who surrendered of any blame, stating they were misled by Sen. Lt. Kostiantyn Bezsmertnyi.
Ukraine’s SBI alleges that Bezsmertnyi contacted Russian forces and was offered a cash reward for delivering the surrender of Ukrainian marines, which Bezsmertnyi delivered—by misleading the soldiers to believe they had been offered a humanitarian corridor through which to retreat. Bezsmertnyi is alleged to have continued to act in service of Russian forces, traveling to his native Berdyansk, where he contacted Ukrainian forces on two separate occasions, attempting to persuade them to surrender.
Bezsmertnyi has been charged with treason and faces life imprisonment if captured and convicted.
With the unit being wiped out at Mariupol, the 35th Marines gradually reconstituted the formation through transfers of veteran soldiers to serve as sergeants in the new unit as well as highly trained recruits. The 501st BN aims to restore its reputation as an elite Marine formation.
Meanwhile, an entirely new unit with no history at all, the 31st Mechanized Brigade, liberated Rivnopil on June 26. Those new soldiers are now pressing down the left flank of the Russian main position at Staromaiorske.
The 31st MB is a new brigade that stood up during spring 2023, but it is not NATO-equipped or trained. Having a collection of T-64BV tanks and U.S.-made MaxxPro Armored Transports in support, it is predominantly equipped with upgraded Soviet-era equipment, one of many new units that Ukraine prepared for the offensive.
Russian command clearly recognized the importance of Rivnopil in defending the left flank of Russian positions along the T0518 highway, running south from Velyka Novosilka. The spokesman for the 31st MB described a complex maze of heavily mined positions encircling the village.
Shortly after the 31st MB and 23rd MB appeared on the Russian left flank, Russian propaganda declared a great victory, saying that both brigades had suffered such crippling losses that Ukraine was forced to combine the two formations to keep functional numbers in the field.
This bit of propaganda has proven laughably false as the 31st MB and its sappers (combat engineers) deftly penetrated the minefields protecting Rivnopil’s flanks. The Russian troops defending the village retreated, and the 31st MB secured the village without requiring a costly frontal assault.
The fighting has now shifted to securing the small road that connects Rivnopil to Russia’s primary defensive positions around Staromaiorsk and Urozhaine as the 31st MB and 35th Marines attempt to gain control of the roadway—and make a path to flank Staromaiorske.
With the road running through nothing but a series of farm fields, there’s some clarity as to why Russia heavily mined and protected the small village of Rivnopil, and why the loss of that position may seriously imperil the current Russian defensive position.
Ukraine is getting closer to dislodging Russia from its defenses around Staromaiorske. Once the village falls, only the village of Zavitne Bazhannya and a mere 3 kilometers will be in the way before Ukraine reaches its initial goal of Staromlynivka.
To the east of Staromlynivka, Ukraine’s 4th Tank Brigade has been trying to drive an attack into the flank of the Russian position at Oleshky. Ukrainian sources continue to report progress.
The Russian defense line in this area lies just south of Staromlynivka. it consists of a single line of Russian defenses, a far cry from the multilayered rings of defenses north of Tokmak.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian blogger Rybar has been reporting an advance by a small group of Ukrainian troops that has crossed the Dnipro River close to Kherson by the remains of the Antonivskyi bridge.
To understand what is going on in this area, it is important to understand the geography of this position.
The small village of Dachy is in this area, but this village has reportedly been abandoned by its residents. The remains of the Antonivka Road Bridge run between Dachi and Kherson to the north over the Dnipro River, which is around 1500 meters (just under a mile) wide at the location of the bridge.
The river also narrows considerably to 500-600 m slightly downstream.
We know it is feasible to construct a pontoon bridge in this area as the Russian army did so last fall, running one almost under the bridge, which partially shielded the pontoon bridge from missile attacks.
Ukrainian troops have taken up positions in the area north of the Konka River. There is a network of small streams running through this area, and much marshland terrain. A road runs south into the town of Oleshky, with a pre-war population of 24,000.
Ukrainian sources remain mum to an extreme on this topic, but pro-Russian bloggers like Rybar and Vladimir Romanov appear to be in agreement that Ukrainian forces have placed at least a company-level force (100-200 troops) in this area. They also report the presence of a platoon of three to four Ukrainian tanks operating in the area. I have yet to see any credible visual confirmation.
A counterattack by Russia by company-level strength forces was attempted and defeated by Ukrainian forces.
So, what to make of this?
First, I have seen Ukrainian sources I consider significantly less credible (due to past performance) claim that Ukrainian troops have pontoon bridges in place not only around Antonivka, but also a supposed second pontoon bridge around Nova Kakhovka. I do not consider these claims credible without some kind of visual confirmation that I doubt is forthcoming.
Construction of a pontoon bridge, particularly one that spans hundreds of meters, is a hazardous and difficult undertaking. For example, in 1996, the U.S. Army built a pair of pontoon bridges totaling 550 m to cross the Sava River in order to secure a passage into Bosnia as NATO peacekeepers. The task took the U.S. engineers three days, which was considered exemplary.
There are modern, more rapid bridging technologies available, but most cannot cross a span more than 200-300 m, and the Dnipro is so wide that even at its narrowest points, only a traditional pontoon bridge is sufficient to secure a crossing. Even assuming Ukrainian engineers can match the speed of the U.S. Engineering Corps, it would likely take a minimum of three to four days to build a pontoon bridge across the Dnipro.
A pontoon bridge is a must, as sustaining an armored brigade or larger unit across the river is impractical without supplies. Furthermore, it would be wholly impractical to attempt to construct such a crossing under Russian artillery and mortar fire. Russian units have greater difficulties striking targets more than 10 km behind enemy lines, as it takes the target out of the range of Russian mortars, MLRS, and smaller-caliber artillery.
Thus, at a minimum, to begin construction of a pontoon bridge, Ukraine likely needs to establish a defensive perimeter with at least a 10 km radius around the pontoon construction site. For Antonivka, this would involve capturing Oleshky and several small surrounding villages.
Given the vulnerabilities of the beachhead to Russian mortar and artillery fire, I consider it highly unlikely that Ukraine has already established any kind of pontoon crossing. If Ukraine continues to reinforce the region and manages to capture Oleshky, or credible reports of Ukraine starting to establish a pontoon bridge emerge, I think it is worth paying attention to this area as a serious possible harbinger of a cross-Dnipro offensive.
Conversely, if Ukrainian troops remain north of the Konka River and simply hold their positions, it seems likely that these operations are fixing operations intended to prevent Russia from moving its forces in this area to wherever they are needed.
Until any evidence appears to the contrary, I consider this operation likely to be a slightly larger-scale harassment/fixing operation by Ukraine, perhaps intended to draw Russian artillery into counterbattery fire. Ukraine appears to have heavily emphasized degrading Russia’s artillery arm in recent weeks.
Some of the lasting memories of the Wagner Uprising may be the scene of so many people providing adoring applause to the Wagnerites as they left Rostov. Putin had just given several national addresses where he had branded those participating in the uprising as traitors, yet leader Yevgeny Prigozhin too was given a hero’s sendoff.
Any illusion that Putin’s regime enjoyed broad popular support was shattered overnight. But for Putin, what ultimately may have been most disturbing of all may have been the sight of numerous Russian army units simply waving Wagner forces on as they drove past checkpoint after checkpoint, unopposed, on their way to Moscow.
Yet Putin need not worry about the prospect of losing an election. A brief look at past “elections” in Russia shows how Putin systematically imprisons or exiles any realistic challengers to his power. When 14% ethnically Russian Kherson Oblast (per the Ukrainian Census) reportedly voted a supposed 88% in favor of annexation by Russia on 77% turnout, any conception of voting in Russia as a reflection of reality should be quickly tossed out, at least as it applies to any office or issue that Putin’s regime views as important.
However, as the Wagner coup demonstrated, those with military power have the means of deposing Putin. Loyalty to the Russian military is quite literally a matter of life and death for Putin’s survival.
One of those first major dominos may have fallen. Reports have begun to come in that Gen. Sergey Surovikin, also known as “General Armageddon” and “the Butcher of Syria,” has been removed from the Russian military. This information, along with prior reports of Surovikin’s arrest, remain unconfirmed.
On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence believed that Surovikin knew of the Wagnerite uprising in advance, and may have participated in the planning. My personal opinion is that Surovikin’s participation in the planning of the Wagner uprising would explain some key questions that I had after the revolt, like:
- Why was the Wagnerite uprising so strategically sound?
- Why did Prigozhin seemingly abruptly give up so close to Moscow without a fight?
First, I found the planning and execution of the Wagner uprising to be astonishingly competent. Rather than driving straight for Moscow, first securing Roston-on-Don to secure a key logistics hub to the entire southern theater was a sound first move in a coup.
It simultaneously paralyzed any reserve elements directly to Wagner’s rear; implicitly threatened the destruction of armies of Russia in Crimea, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts; and secured the supplies and fuel stockpiled in the rail hub.
Wagner appears to have done an excellent job of ensuring air cover with surface-to-air missile batteries, shooting down multiple fixed-wing and rotary aircraft en route toward Moscow. But having captured two major cities, advancing nearly unopposed for 800 km, and just a couple hours’ drive from Moscow, Prigozhin ordered the Wagner troops to turn around. A truce was negotiated.
My big question was between the time Prigozhin announced his “March of Justice” and when he stood down on Saturday, what did he learn that convinced him to give up?
It may have been Surovikin urging Wagner forces to give up, publicly signaling that Surovikin supported the Putin regime in the uprising.
It has been pointed out that even had Wagner succeeded in capturing Moscow, prospects of success looked unlikely without the support of the Russian military. Putin reported had already fled to his bunker outside St. Petersburg, and there is little reason to think that Prigozhin’s targets—Ministry of Defense leaders Gen. Valery Gerasimov and Defense Minister Shoigu—would idly sit by in Moscow waiting to be arrested by Wagner forces.
But Wagner’s prospects might have been very different had Wagner had the support of key members of the Russian military. That may have been Prigozhin’s understanding when he launched the coup.
Surovikin is the former overall commander of Russian forces in the “special operation,” and the commander of Russian Aerospace Forces. He is among a handful of the most powerful leaders in the Russian military.
Surovikin was well known for his sympathy for Prigozhin and the Wagnerites, which was presented quite publicly in the past. U.S. intelligence suggests that Surovikin may have been motivated by antagonism of what he saw as incompetence at the highest levels of the Ministry of Defense, and a desire for reform that would not be forthcoming under Putin’s regime.
But hypothetically, had Surovikin been part of the planning of the uprising, why would he abruptly abandon the uprising after it started?
While Surovikin controls the Russian Aerospace Forces, he would not have any direct authority over key military units within striking distance of Moscow or St. Petersburg. To rapidly secure the political centers of Russia, Surovikin and Prigozhin would likely need more than just Wagner and the Russian Air Force.
Surovikin likely would have been in the role of persuading other key commanders to join the uprising. A failure in such an effort may have persuaded Surovikin to abandon the venture. And Prigozhin would have been aware that Surovikin’s abandonment of the uprising likely spelled its ultimate failure.
Surovikin was widely regarded by American intelligence as one of Russia’s most brutal and effective field commanders. His participation would go a long way toward explaining the uprising’s sound operational planning.
Surovikin also was one of the only general officers in the Russian army to publicly take a stance on the uprising, urging the Wagnerites to lay down their arms. Most Russian officers appeared to be laying low, waiting to see how things would develop.
Surovikin being a part of the plot then abandoning the venture would explain the biggest question of all: What changed between triggering the uprising and advancing to within striking distance of Moscow a day later?
Pro-Russian blogger Rybar, who has numerous contacts within the Russian military, reports that Surovikin has had no contact with his family since Sunday—the day after the end of the Wagner uprising. It now appears that Surovikin has been removed from the Russian military. His fate is unknown.
It is important to remember, however, that many of the organizations that have a say in Surovikin’s fate have reasons to want to see him fall from grace.
- The United States would like to see Putin degrade the abilities of the Russian Army through a politically motivated purge. As previously noted, Surovikin is widely regarded as a brutal and effective field commander, so his removal would weaken the Russian military.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense’s leadership would like to see Surovikin fall, as Surovikin represents internal opposition to their domination, and a dangerous threat in the future.
- Putin himself may want to remove Surovikin as a show of “strength.” Surovikin makes a convenient scapegoat for the uprising. Unable to punish Wagner’s leadership owing to the terms of his truce deal, Surovikin is one of the few high-profile individuals not protected under the terms of the deal who Putin can punish.
Thus, statements by any of these parties regarding Surovikin should be regarded with a measure of skepticism without strong material proof and corroborating testimony from trustworthy individuals. There has been very little of that in the few days since the Wagner uprising.
As noted above, if the Russian military had any role in the uprising, then Russian intelligence services are likely investigating links between Surovikin and other officers in the Russian military.
Rybar reports: “The armed insurgency by the Wagner private military company has become a pretext for a massive purge in the ranks of the Russian armed forces.” These reports are also unconfirmed, but Rybar suggests a purge of mid-level officers (colonels and lieutenant colonels) is being conducted, focusing on units that showed reluctance to engage Wagner forces during the uprising.
In the past, Putin has shown more readiness to punish mid-level officers over general officers. It may be that general officers in the Russian military have risen far enough to have political connections and protectors. Colonels and lieutenant colonels may have enough authority that punishing them appears to show an active Russian administration with consequences, but without such punishments causing political waves that Putin finds undesirable.
If the Russian military comes to believe a larger network of supporters for the Wagner uprising exists among the Russian military, or if Putin questions the general loyalty of those who expressed past support for Wagner, a purge of mid-level officers might be forthcoming.
Such a move would be straight out of Joseph Stalin’s playbook, a man for whom Putin has expressed frequent admiration. A Putinist purge may cripple the Russian military as badly as Stalin’s Great Purge once did.
The impact of Stalin’s Great Purge of 1936-38 was far broader than what befell the Red Army.
The Purge began with show trials and executions of opposition elements in the highest reaches of the Communist Party, but expanded to claim victims in every part of Soviet society. Victims were heaviest among ethnic or religious minorities and Soviet satellite states, but the 1.2 million victims of the Purge included numerous Russian victims as well.
The palpable fear of this era is communicated by the great Russian writer and Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who relays a story he heard in a dissidents’ gulag in Siberia. Recorded in Solzhenitsyn’s memoir “The Gulag Archipelago,” it involves an elderly communist official who had been exiled to the same camp.
The story goes that the man had gone to attend the Congress of the Communist Party in 1937, at the height of the Great Purge. Even among the Communist Party elite, the fear was palpable; everyone understood that their every move was being scrutinized by the KGB.
Stalin of course gave a speech at the congress, and of course, every member of the congress stood to give a rousing standing ovation. Five minutes passed, then 10 minutes, yet the applause continued unabated.
Every person in that room was terrified to be the first to stop clapping.
Finally, that exhausted elderly party official stopped clapping and sat down. Shortly thereafter, the entire congress sat down. The elderly party official was arrested and subjected to brutal questioning by the KGB, then exiled to Siberia.
Solzhenitsyn notes that a bell was installed in the Soviet Congress Building in 1937. Three minutes after the end of Stalin’s speeches, the bell would be rung. Then all the attendees would stop clapping and sit down in unison.
Such was the atmosphere of fear that Stalin cultivated during the Purge. The military leadership might have been targeted hardest of all. Stalin understood that of all the elements of Soviet society, the military had the most potential to overthrow him. Thus Stalin regarded the Red Army with overt suspicion.
The numbers themselves tell enough of a story. Historian Catherine Merridale notes, in her seminal book “Ivan’s War,” the devastating impact the Purge had on the Red Army’s leadership.
Between 1937 to 1938, 4 out of 5 generals, 13 of 15 lieutenant generals, 50 of 57 major generals, and 153 out of 186 brigadier generals were purged—whether executed, imprisoned, or exiled to Siberia. Clearing out a large proportion of the general officers of the Russian Army then permitted Stalin to install people whom Stalin believed to have the highest loyalty and political reliability.
The impact on Soviet military readiness was devastating. The Red Army struggled mightily in the Winter War that Stalin started with Finland in 1939. Despite a massive advantage in men and materiel, the Finns fought the Red Army to a near-stalemate.
But the greatest impact was felt through the utter collapse of the Red Army in its initial battles with Nazi Germany in 1941. It is a common misconception that the German Army’s push into the Soviet Union was somehow impossible to stop, and that the Soviet “strategy” of drawing the Germans deep into their territory was some kind of necessity.
Soviet war plans did not contemplate any such move, and from a material standpoint, it seemed there was no reason to. In June 1941, the Soviets had nearly three times as many tanks as the Germans, more artillery, more aircraft, and near parity in the number of troops. While the Germans enjoyed some qualitative advantages in materiel, nothing indicates on paper that the Germans crushing Red Army positions was somehow inevitable.
Yet the initial battles of the Red Army were utterly disastrous. Stalin’s complacency in his belief that Hitler would honor the nonaggression pact for a few more years was a factor, but the utter incompetence of the Red Army leadership is often pointed to as the critical issue with its collapse.
In a matter of weeks, over a million Red Army troops were captured, front-line Red Army units were all but annihilated, and German troops advanced to the gates of Moscow and Leningrad by September. Only Hitler’s strategic indecision and incompetence in dispersing German combat power across three fronts, rather than a focused push on key strategic objectives, saved the Soviet Union.
Which is all to say that if Putin moves forward with a purge of his Russian officer corps, the effects could be similarly devastating.
If Putin believes that he can purge the mid-level officers of the Russian Army without much consequence, he is likely deeply mistaken. Colonels and higher-ranked officers of the Russian Army have a significance unique to the Russian system of command.
In the Russian army, unlike in NATO-style armies, personal initiative by lower-ranking officers is actively discouraged. Young officers are given strict and detailed instructions on how to carry out their missions, which they are expected to fulfill to the letter. Diversion from those orders results in punishment.
The lowest level of officers given tactical discretion are colonel-level officers who hold battalion-level commands (600-1,000 troops). Much like in other militaries worldwide, colonel-level officers are sent to the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, where they ordinarily receive around two years of additional training to prepare them for their new command responsibilities. This is after generally 10-15 years of service and experience.
However, Russia has been losing colonel-level officers at a rapid rate in the Russo-Ukrainian War. By November 2022, Russia had lost 160 officers of colonel level or higher, with losses among lieutenant colonels and colonels representing the vast majority.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claims that Russia operated around 170 Battalion Tactical Groups in 2021, thus it’s reasonable to assume that Russia had perhaps 170 well trained front-line commanding officers of around colonel rank. Perhaps double that number, including their deputies or other officers awaiting command, would provide Russia with, at most, 400 or so trained colonels for battalion command.
With HIMARS strikes actively targeting battalion headquarters (which ordinarily are relatively close to the front lines), Russia may have lost as much as nearly half of its competent front-line commanders.
And Putin may be about to lobotomize the brains of the Russian Army’s front-line units.
If Putin chooses to begin purging elements of the Russian mid-level officers seeking out those who are deemed less politically reliable, this degradation of Russia’s colonel-level officers may have fatal effects on the basic leadership competence of the Russian Army.