(Not) Behind Enemy Lines III: Leading Russia’s War in Ukraine

The chaos in eastern Ukraine begs a vital question – who is in charge? Having outlined the relationship between Russian and separatist groups, Analyst Sean Crowley looks at Russian officers in Ukraine in Part III of (Not) Behind Enemy Lines.


A clear chain of command is vital to the integrity of any military organization; Russian and rebel forces in eastern Ukraine are no exception. With few local experts in warfare administration available, the Ukrainian separatists have had to rely heavily on Russia’s General Staff to provide training and discipline. Five Russian generals and one colonel have been observed in eastern Ukraine to date, bringing a mix of conventional and unconventional backgrounds to the battlefield.


Command Presence

Key to Russia’s attempts to exert greater control of the separatist militias is the use of Russian officers, including generals, to lead rebel forces. Russia only dispatched lower-echelon officers such as lieutenants, captains, and majors at the beginning of its intervention in Donbas, but brought in higher-ranking officers when it realized greater influence over the separatists was necessary. Journalists have already spotted Russian generals in Donbas, though these sightings are often short-lived.

In April 2015, journalists reported spotting a Russian general observing rebel forces conducting training exercises. The general, flanked by an entourage of five armed guards, wore a camouflage uniform with no insignia. When the reporters attempted to photograph the general, his guards moved to shield him forbidding the journalists from taking pictures. The bodyguards then escorted the startled general to a four-vehicle convoy, including the General’s personal transport - a black Toyota sports utility vehicle with no license plates.

The general later reappeared at a Luhansk hotel 25 kilometers from the Russian border almost an hour after he left the rebel training camp. The hotel was mostly empty, and potential guests were informed that there was no vacancy. Those who remained inside were middle-aged men in camouflage, likely professional soldiers, who guarded every corner of the hotel, and refused to speak to outsiders. They spent most of their time watching Russian television with ammunition and machine guns lying next to their chairs. A military truck arrived at the hotel one morning carrying men brandishing large-caliber machine guns and sniper rifles.


Men of a Certain Rank

According to a report released by the Ukrainian Security Service (Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrayiny; SBU), there are five Russian generals in Ukraine as well as one Russian colonel.

  • Major General Oleg Mussovich Tsekov commands two Luhansk peoples’ militia brigades, including the Second Brigade. According to the SBU he also uses the alias “Oleg Turnov.” General Tsekov began his military career when he graduated from a Soviet military institute in 1989, going on to serve in various parts of Russia and Mongolia. In 2011 he took command of the 200th Motorized Special Forces Brigade of the Northern Fleet. In September 2014, this unit transferred personnel from the Murmansk Oblast to the Rostov Oblast, where they went on to fight in Donbas. Tsekov was promoted to major general on 21 February 2015.


  • Major General Valeriy Nikolayevich Solodchuk commands the 1st Army Corps of the “Novorossiya” in Donetsk. He graduated from the VDV (Vozdushno-desantnye voyska; Air-landing Forces) institute in Ryazan in 1992. In 2012, he became commander of the 7th Guards Air Assault Division, based in Novorossiysk, and by 2014 he had become deputy commander of the 5th Army in the Far East. The general became involved in Crimea as early as April 2014, when a 7th Guards paratrooper named Stanislav Ramenskiy posted a photograph on social media of a military medal and certificate he received. He received them “for the return of Crimea,” and the certificate bore General Solodchuk’s signature. The general also hinted at his unit’s involvement in the Crimean intervention in a media interview when he boasted that the 7th Guards was ready for deployment into battle “any moment,” as was the entire Russian military. Russia employed such a rapid-response capability when it seized Crimea.


  • The commander of regular Russian military operations in Luhansk is Major General Sergey Yuriyevich Kuzovlev. Like General Solodchuk, General Kuzovlev is a career paratrooper who graduated from the Ryazan-based VDV institute. He also studied at the General Staff Academy, and received a promotion to major general in 2014 as Chief of Staff of the 58th Army in Vladikavkaz. The SBU claim that it has audio recordings of General Kuzovlev organizing Luhansk Peoples’ Republic (Luhanska Narodna Respublika; LPR or LNR) militias, and also believes he operates under the aliases “Tambov” and “Ignatov.”    


  • Born in Narva, Major General Aleksey Vladimirovich Zavizion, unlike his comrades, is not a native Russian but an Estonian. He graduated from a military academy in Chelyabinsk in 1986, served afterwards in the Far East and Chechnya, and eventually become the commander of Russia’s forces in Tajikistan. In 2009, he began studies at the General Staff Academy. According to the SBU, his last reported posting was as coordinator of regular Russian troops in Donetsk. In March 2015, General Zavizion, using the callsign “Alagir,” orchestrated artillery operations against Mariupol and Kramatorsk where he was, according to the SBU, “in charge of artillery, mobile rocket systems, and heavy equipment,” and was involved in “major bloody attacks on Ukrainian cities.” General Zavizion is scheduled to be replaced by Major General Andrey Gurulyov.  


  • Major General Roman Aleksandrovich Shadrin currently serves as the deputy of the LNR’s state security ministry. He began his career after graduating from a military academy in Kazan in 1985, after which he served in a Soviet unit in East Germany. In 1995, he received the Hero of Russia medal for his service in Chechnya, and also served in Armenia and the Caucasus before becoming deputy commander of MVD (Ministerstvo Vnutrennikh Del; Ministry of Internal Affairs) troops in the Ural Mountains region. His promotion to major general came following service in South Ossetia during the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict. Recently, Shadrin left the military for politics winning an election for the Yekaterinburg city Duma in September 2013. He ran on the ticket for United Russia, President Putin’s ruling party. Shadrin vehemently denies that he serves in the LNR’s state security ministry, insisting he has only gone to Donbas for a “humanitarian mission,” a common cover used by Russians serving in eastern Ukraine. He remains unsure of when he will return to his political duties in Yekaterinburg.



The “Peacekeepers”

Despite the apparent secrecy, there is actually one general and military unit that Russia actually admits is in Ukraine. This troop contingent is in Ukraine at the request of the Kievan government. Its objective is to assist the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) oversee the Minsk II ceasefire via the so-called Joint Center for Control and Coordination. The ranking Russian officer is Lieutenant General Aleksandr Ivanovich Lentsov, also deputy commander of the Russian Ground Forces. Despite publicly working to maintain the ceasefire, reports indicate that General Lentsov also seeks to undermine it.

The chain of command for Russian forces in Ukraine remains unclear; some believe it is unlikely that General Lentsov maintains contact with any of the Russian officers commanding separatists in Donbas. However, some reports state that Russian forces, consisting of three battalion tactical groups (BTGs), allegedly took Debaltseve under General Lentsov’s command. Additional reports even point to Russia taking direct military action against the OSCE.


Continued in Part IV


Photo courtesy of the Kremlin