The US has been unable to determine if Russia has designated a military commander responsible for leading the country’s war in Ukraine, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter — something that current and former defense officials say is likely a key contributor to the apparent clumsiness and disorganization of the Russian assault.
Without a top, theater-wide commander on the ground in or near Ukraine, units from different Russian military districts operating in different parts of Ukraine appear to be competing for resources rather than coordinating their efforts, according to two US defense officials.
Units participating in different Russian offensives across Ukraine have failed to connect, these sources say, and in fact, appear to be acting independently with no overarching operational design.
Russian forces also appear to be having significant communication issues. Soldiers and commanders have at times used commercial cell phones and other unsecure channels to talk to each other, making their communications easier to intercept and helping Ukraine develop targets for their own counterstrikes.
It’s all led to what these sources say has been a disjointed — and at times chaotic — operation that has surprised US and western officials.
“One of the principles of war is ‘unity of command,’ said CNN military analyst retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a former commander of the US Army in Europe. “That means someone has to be in overall charge— to coordinate fires, direct logistics, commit reserve forces, measure the success (and failure) of different ‘wings’ of the operation and adjust actions based on that.”
Historically, there have been instances in which Russia has publicized this kind of information, but the Ministry of Defense has not made any reference to a top commander for operations in Ukraine and did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on the topic.
And while it is possible that Russia has quietly designated a top commander to oversee the invasion — even if the US has been unable to identify that individual — the state of combat operations would suggest “he’s inept,” according to Hertling.
The Russian invasion has also been marked by an inordinate number of casualties among high-ranking Russian officers.
The Ukrainians say they have killed five Russian generals during the first three weeks of the war, a claim CNN has not independently confirmed. Still, any military general being killed in combat is a rare event, Retired US Army Gen. David Petraeus told CNN’s Jake Tapper during Sunday’s State of the Union.
Col. Sergei Sukharev, the commander of an elite Russian airborne unit, was also killed in battle in Ukraine, Russian regional state TV network GTRK Kostroma reported Thursday.
“The bottom line is that their command and control has broken down,” said Petraeus.
The sheer size of the invasion has only made things worse. Coordinating operations along a front that measures over 1,000 miles requires “extensive communication capability and command, control and intelligence resources that the Russians just don’t have,” Hertling added.
“I can’t see that anything the navy is doing is coordinated with the anything the air force is doing or anything the land force is doing,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, another former commander of the US Army in Europe, who cautioned that he had no inside knowledge of the US understanding of Russia’s command structure.
“The Russians have had tremendous difficulties with command and control during this operation at all echelons,” echoed a US source familiar with the situation on the ground. “Some of this may be due to actions by the Ukrainians themselves.”
On the ground, Russian troops in the field have often been cut off from their senior commanders, sources said.
“The guys in the field go out and they have their objective, but they have no way to radio back [if something goes wrong],” said another source familiar with the intelligence, who added that western officials believe this is part of the reason that some Russian troops have been observed abandoning their own tanks and armored personnel carriers in the field and simply walking away.