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Russia appoints top soldier Valery Gerasimov to oversee Ukraine campaign

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has appointed Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov to oversee the military campaign in Ukraine, in the latest shake-up of Moscow's military leadership.

In a statement, the defence ministry said Mr Shoigu had appointed Mr Gerasimov as commander of the combined forces group for the "special military operation" in Ukraine. It is the most senior position among Russia's battlefield generals.

Only last October, Russia had put Sergey Surovikin, nicknamed "General Armageddon" by the Russian media for his reputed ruthlessness, in overall charge of Ukraine operations following a series of counter-offensives by Ukrainian forces that turned the tide of the conflict.

Mr Surovikin will stay on as a deputy of Mr Gerasimov, the defence ministry said.

Mr Gerasimov, like Mr Shoigu, has faced sharp criticism from Russia's hawkish military bloggers for multiple setbacks on the battlefield and Moscow's failure to secure victory in a campaign the Kremlin had expected to take just a short time.

The changes are designed to increase the effectiveness of military operations in Ukraine, the ministry said, more than 10 months into a campaign in which tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides, as well as Ukrainian civilians, have been killed.

"The increase in the level of leadership of the special military operation is connected with the expansion in the scale of tasks … the need to organise closer contact between different branches of the armed forces and improve the quality … and effectiveness of the management of Russian forces," the ministry statement said.

'The sum does not change'

Russian pro-war commentators were not impressed.

"The sum does not change, just by changing the places of its parts," wrote one prominent military blogger who posts on the Telegram messaging app under the name of Rybar.

He said Mr Surovikin, a veteran of Russian campaigns in Chechnya and Syria, was being made the fall guy for a series of recent Russian military failures, including a Ukrainian attack on a Russian barracks in the town of Makiivka that killed at least 89 Russian soldiers, including conscripts, at new year.

Military analyst Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said on Twitter that Mr Gerasimov's appointment reasserted the defence ministry's position in the conduct of the war.

"I don't think this is because Surovikin is viewed as a failure. [It is] certainly possible that this was driven by political reasons," Mr Lee said.

"As the unified commander in Ukraine, Surovikin was becoming very powerful and was likely bypassing Shoigu/Gerasimov when talking to Putin."

Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov noted on Telegram that the move followed the transfer of another top general, Alexander Lapin, to the role of land forces chief on Tuesday.

"All this moving of the same individuals from one chair to another, at the height of military hostilities, may say whatever you like but not that 'everything is going according to plan'," Mr Gallyamov said.

Russian and Ukrainian forces were engaged in intense fighting on Wednesday over the town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, a stepping stone in Moscow's push to capture the entire Donbas region.

The Russians appeared to have the upper hand.

Russian mercenaries find body of missing Briton

Forces from Russia's Wagner Group on Wednesday found the body of one of two British voluntary aid workers reported missing in eastern Ukraine, the private military firm said in a statement.

It did not mention the name of the dead man but said documents belonging to both Britons had been found on his body.

A photo posted alongside the statement appeared to show passports bearing the names of Andrew Bagshaw and Christopher Parry, the two missing workers.

Ukrainian police said on Monday they were looking for the pair who went missing in eastern Ukraine, the scene of heavy fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

"Today the body of one of them was found. Documents for both Britons were discovered with him," said the Wagner statement.

It did not give details on where the body was found.

Ukrainian police said the two left the city of Kramatorsk for the town of Soledar on Friday morning and were reported missing on Saturday evening after contact with them was lost.

A spokesperson for Britain's Foreign Office said: "We are supporting the families of two British men who have gone missing in Ukraine."

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Wagner and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said his forces had captured all of Soledar and killed about 500 Ukrainian soldiers after heavy fighting.

"I want to confirm the complete liberation and cleansing of the territory of Soledar," Mr Prigozhin said in a statement.

"The whole city is littered with the corpses of Ukrainian soldiers."

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he could not corroborate reports that Soledar was in Russian hands.

Reuters was unable to independently verify the situation in Soledar.


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