Putin appoints new commander for Russian war in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced the commander at the helm of his forces in Ukraine just three months after handing him the post.

General Valery Gerasimov will succeed Sergei Surovikin, the country’s Defense Ministry announced on Telegram on Wednesday, 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 given sole responsibility for the campaign in October, and his tenure was marked by the aerial bombardment of Ukrainian civilian infrastructure as well as Russia’s withdrawal from the crucial city of Kherson in the south of the country.

He previously led Russian forces in Syria and was accused of overseeing a brutal bombardment that destroyed much of the city of Aleppo.

The ministry said he would now be one of Gerasimov’s three deputies, along with Army General Oleg Salyukov and Colonel General Alexey Kim, as part of a new “joint force group”.

He added that the “increased level of leadership” was “related to the expanded range of tasks” and the need for closer cooperation between branches of the Russian armed forces.

Rob Lee, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute think tank, said the Twitter that he did not think Gerasimov’s appointment came “because Surovikin is considered a failure”, although he said it was possible the apparent demotion “was politically motivated”.

Meanwhile, Kremlin forces appeared close to a breakthrough in fierce fighting on the eastern front lines.

Battles continued to rage around Soledar, a devastated salt mining town that saw one of the fiercest and costliest recent land battles in the nearly 11-month war.

Ukrainian officials said the country’s soldiers continued to hold out despite heavy fighting and a group of Russian mercenaries claiming to have captured the town.

NBC News has not verified the claims from either side.

Taking the city would likely be seen as a significant, if costly, victory for the Kremlin, which has suffered embarrassing defeats on the battlefield and signs of trepidation at home as the war nears a year.

The area is in Donetsk province, one of four that Putin claims he illegally annexed in September, and is notable for its sprawling disused mining tunnels.

Although it has little intrinsic value, it is located at a strategic point about 10 km north of the town of Bakhmut, which the Russian forces aim to encircle.

Taking Bakhmut would disrupt Ukrainian supply lines and open a path for Russian forces to move towards Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, the main Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk Province.

However, Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the nonprofit research organization CAN in Arlington, Virginia, said the Twitter, that he did not think the result in Bakhmut was “so important compared to what it costs Russia to achieve it”. He added that these costs could impinge on Russian military strategy.

However, he said the battle could also “impact Ukraine’s offensive plans”.

As the war approaches its first anniversary on February 24, more attention is turning to who holds the upper hand in the conflict. Kyiv maintains that it cannot win without an increase in heavy artillery and tanks from its Western allies.

Meanwhile, Moscow maintains that its “special military operation” will plan despite numerous setbacks since the invasion.

The United States said it would provide Bradley fighting vehicles to the front line; other countries have made similar commitments.

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