Has a future Chief of the General Staff (NGSh or НГШ) appeared on the Russian military leadership horizon? Is it Aleksandr Zhuravlev?
RF President Vladimir Putin appointed General-Colonel Zhuravlev (zhu-rav-LYOV) Commander of the Western MD sometime prior to November 10. For more than a year, he’s been a rapidly rising star of the Russian Army.
Zhuravlev shaking hands with Putin in 2017
Zhuravlev replaced General-Colonel Andrey Kartapolov who became Deputy Minister of Defense and Chief of the Main Military-Political Directorate of the RF Armed Forces back in mid-summer.
Putin made General-Colonel Zhuravlev a Hero of the Russian Federation for commanding Russian forces in Syria in 2017 (he was also previously chief of staff in Syria). He served a stint as a deputy chief of the General Staff. He also briefly commanded the Eastern MD and led its troops during Vostok-2018. Those “strategic maneuvers” likely delayed his appointment to the Western MD.
Born in Tyumen oblast on December 2, 1965, Zhuravlev’s not quite 53. He graduated from the Chelyabinsk Higher Tank Command School in 1986. He served in the USSR’s Central Group of Forces (Czechoslovakia) for about eight years before returning to mid-career training at the Military Academy of Armored Troops.
In 1996, he was posted to the Far Eastern MD where he was a tank regiment and motorized rifle division commander.
He completed his senior training at the Military Academy of the General Staff in 2008. Upon graduation, he became Chief of Staff, First Deputy Commander of the 58th CAA in the North Caucasus (now Southern) MD.
In 2010, Putin appointed him to command the 2nd CAA in the Volga-Ural (now Central) MD. He became Chief of Staff, First Deputy Commander of the Central MD in early 2015. That posting led to Zhuravlev’s duty in Syria. The Central MD has been responsible for Russian operations in Syria.
Zhuravlev was chief of staff for Russia’s forces from the start. He commanded them during the second half of 2016 and for most of 2018. He basically never got settled in the Eastern MD before being moved to the Western.
General-Colonel Zhuravlev looks like he’s checked all boxes to become Chief of the General Staff at some point. A Hero of the Russian Federation . . . command of forces in combat . . . command of MDs . . . chief of staff assignments in Syria, Central MD, 58th CAA. Perhaps all he needs to spend a couple years actually commanding the Western MD.
But what of the current NGSh Army General Valeriy Gerasimov? He just turned 63. By statute, he can serve until he’s 65, but there are cases where general officers serve beyond established limits. A lot could depend on how long Putin intends for Sergey Shoygu to be Minister of Defense. Shoygu picked Gerasimov right away to replace his predecessor’s NGSh — Nikolay Makarov — in 2012. It’s hard to say when Gerasimov might go.
The current list of Russian three-star officers has less than 20 men. General-Colonel Sergey Surovikin is Zhuravlev’s most obvious competition. But is he a stronger candidate now that he’s getting the unusual chance to command Russia’s air forces, or was he shunted aside?
Among the others, at least five are specialists lacking experience commanding large-scale ground forces. Two are career staff officers without recent command experience. About six are so close in age to Gerasimov that they don’t really make sense.
Soon to be 57, Airborne Troops Commander Andrey Serdyukov is a possibility but he never commanded an MD. He was, however, Chief of Staff, First Deputy Commander of the Southern MD, and slated to command in Syria in late 2017 when a serious car accident derailed that plan. Andrey Kartapolov seems sidelined with Russia’s resurrected political officers, but he’s only 55, so it might be early to count him out. Similarly, Aleksandr Dvornikov is 57, was the first commander of Russia’s troops in Syria, is a Hero of the Russian Federation, and currently commands the Southern MD.
There are younger rising stars but, as general-lieutenants, most haven’t yet held a large command. But two are new MD commanders — Aleksandr Lapin in the Central and now Gennadiy Zhidko in the Eastern. At 53, Zhidko was a chief of staff in Syria, served a year as a deputy chief of the General Staff, and is a Hero of the RF. Lapin and Zhidko will probably get their third stars in December.
From what we can tell externally, it doesn’t appear NGSh Valeriy Gerasimov is going anywhere soon. But a change in the MOD’s top uniformed officer will probably happen overnight and take us by surprise. When it does, General-Colonel Zhuravlev might be best positioned to succeed him.