The most recent Russian offensive in Ukraine has failed and, as usual, Vladimir Putin is carrying out a major replacement of generals commanding major units involved. Prompt dismissal of so many senior commanders is an ancient practice in Russia. There has been a long tradition of the "vertical chop 0r stroke)", where several senior leaders in the same chain of command are dismissed, or even executed, at least in the old days, when there was a screwup in their area of responsibility. This is the second military leadership purge since the invasion began on February 24. The first purge took place quietly and less rapidly in March as it became clear that the original plan to rapidly and at little cost seize control of Ukraine was not working. That led to a disastrous defeat in northern Ukraine which saw half Russia’s combat units there destroyed or disabled by heavy losses. As the March purge was ending a new offensive was announced that concentrated on taking control of all of Donbas and the entire Ukrainian Black Sea coast. This new plan was supposed to show some results by May 9th, when Russian held the annual Victory Day parade in honor of the Russian victory over Nazi Germany.
There was no good news by May 9th and portions of the offensive had turned into a retreat. Ukrainian forces were preparing other offensive operations and the Russian response was to install new military commanders who believed they could make the Russian invasion successful, or at least less of a failure. The latest plan involves annexing portions of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces and trying to portray Ukrainians as the invaders for trying to get their territory back. This is an ancient tactic which for centuries the ancient Romans used successively because they maintained the most professional and effective military forces in the region. Using this “we stole it fairly and it’s ours” approach doesn’t work if you cannot defend your new conquest.
After World War II Russia got away with holding on to most of its World War II conquests. As the Romans eventually discovered, a lot of those conquests don’t stay conquered and when there are too many rebellious conquests your empire collapses. This is what happened to the Soviet Union in 1991 and now former Soviet KGB officer Vladimir Putin is trying to put the Russian empire back together.
Ukraine was the vital first reconquest, and it isn’t working. Vigorous application of the vertical chop is not working largely because replacement leaders are selected for loyalty rather than military ability. Before World War II Russia was dismissing military commanders for suspected disloyalty and replacing them with loyal, but often incompetent, officers. After the German invasion, the vertical chop got real, with failed commanders being replaced by competent ones. Once the war was over Russia returned to the “loyalty replaces ability” approach and that was a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Another aspect of this which many Russians notice that this time around the Ukrainians are the desperate and very practical defenders of their homeland while the Russian invaders are acting like the World War II Nazis, except without the initial advantage of better trained and led troops. Many of the Russian troops in Ukraine, especially conscripts realized they were regarded by the Ukrainians as another bunch of Nazis. This crippled a lot of Russian combat units and even the threat of summary execution by officers (a power quietly reinstated by Putin) did not improve morale or willingness to fight.
Putin has ordered a growing number of these military purges in the last two decades. For example, in 2016 Russia announced that fifty of the most senior officers of the Baltic Fleet had been fired and replaced with newly promoted officers or commanders who had proven track records in other parts of the navy. Some of the replacements did have useful skills, but many did not and the Baltic Sea Fleet has not improved much.
The purges were justified because of the growing official Russian hostility towards NATO and the four new (since 1991) NATO members that used to be part of Russia (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) or occupied by Russia (Poland). Those new NATO members upgraded their military capabilities because of the increasing belligerency demonstrated by Russia since 1991.The capabilities of the Baltic Fleet became an issue for both NATO and Russia. A month before the 2016 purge a thorough investigation into the Baltic Fleet and its fifty or so ships was carried out. The results of the report apparently confirmed suspicions that the current fleet leadership had failed to improve the capabilities of the Baltic Fleet. Since the 1990s Russia has (especially in the last decade) replaced most of the older Cold War era warships it had to retire because they were inoperable. In 2008 the Baltic Fleet had 75 ships and after mandatory retirements because of age or years of little or no maintenance, the fleet was reduced to fifty ships that were mostly new. Much more money was given to the Baltic Fleet since 2010 for maintenance and training but that seemed to have little impact on the effectiveness of the fleet. The 2016 investigation confirmed that in detail and the government took action. Such was not the case with the rest of the fleet.
For over a century, Russia had four fleets (Northern, Pacific, Baltic and Black Sea). The latter two were virtually destroyed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. For over a decade Russia has been having political problems with Georgia and Ukraine, and could really use some additional (and modern) naval power in the Black Sea to help with this. To a lesser extent, the same situation applies in the Baltic, where Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania provided bases and often built much of the Baltic fleet. Poland, while not part of the Soviet Union, was a major naval ally, as was East Germany. The loss of Poland and East Germany reduced the Baltic fleet to a fraction of what it once was, and needed rebuilding. That was expected to take a decade, at which point the new ships would be in service, because most of the Soviet era ones will be dead of old age. Ship building goals could not be met and the Baltic and Black Sea fleets had lower priority. Since the 1990s, most new ships have gone to the Northern or Pacific fleets. Those two fleets provided bases and support for Russians SSBNs (nuclear powered subs carrying ballistic missiles). Now Russia is on the offensive to regain control of the Black Sea and then the Baltic but has to do it mainly with land forces.
The Russian approach to incompetent military and intelligence leadership fell out of favor in the West after World War II. Now the tendency is to fire as few people as possible when there is a major failure. After September 11, 2001, for example, no one got fired. But the vertical chop still survives in some areas. The U.S. Navy, for example, will fire the captain of a ship, and often several other officers as well, when there is an accident. This recognizes the fact that accidents with ships can be very expensive, and get a lot of people killed. While the officers fired don't like it, most naval officers accept the vertical chop as a necessary evil. There are always plenty of capable officers available to replace those dismissed, and the replacements have the fear of the vertical chop to encourage them to do better. The vertical chop is also a common, and usually effective management tool for commercial enterprises. Successful businesses replace the incompetent with the competent or at least the less-incompetent. Major collapses of commercial firms are often due to replacing the incompetent with loyal believers in current senior management.
Russian military efforts in Ukraine won’t succeed as long as the more competent replacements to a vertical chop tend to favor cutting losses and withdrawing from Ukraine. The Russian military has few of those “more competent” officers because since the 1990s the Russian military has not been regarded as hospitable to able and ambitious officers. Many officers left voluntarily and now run successful businesses in Russia or have migrated to the West where there are more opportunities and fewer true believers in restoring the empire at any cost.