‘Snipers have been picking them off left and right’: Retired U.S. general explains why so many Russian generals are getting killed in Ukraine

March 21, 2022, 2:17 PM UTC

Russia keeps losing generals in its war against Ukraine.

The latest death, reported Saturday by Ukrainian officials, was that of Andrei Mordvichev, who as a lieutenant general was the highest-ranking of the Russian generals to have been killed so far.

He reportedly perished in a Ukrainian attack on an airfield near the Black Sea port of Kherson.

The previous week, Major General Oleg Mityaev reportedly died in the Russian assault on Mariupol. Three other generals of the same rank—Andrei Sukhovetsky, Vitaly Gerasimov, and Andrey Kolesnikov, have also reportedly been killed in the war. So far, the Kremlin has acknowledged only Sukhovetsky’s death.

As retired U.S. General David Petraeus told CNN on Sunday, it is “very, very uncommon” for generals to be killed in action. “This is in the first three weeks [of the Russia-Ukraine war], and these are quite senior generals,” the former CIA director added.

What is going wrong for Russia?

When U.S. Major General Harold Greene died in Afghanistan in 2014, it was the first time that had happened in four decades, and it was an inside job—he was killed by an Afghan soldier.

As strategic studies professor Phillips O’Brien told Fortune last week, “If you have generals at the front and putting themselves in dangerous positions, it’s often because they need to be there…It would normally be the result of having a lot of screwups they’re trying to deal with.”

Petraeus told CNN the Russian problem was partly related to insecure or patchy communications.

“The bottom line is their command and control has broken down,” he said, citing reports of Ukrainians blocking and intercepting Russian radio conversations.

The other issue may be the structure of Russia’s armed forces, in which orders come down from commissioned officers, and—because there is a strategic focus on bombarding targets from afar—there is no noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps to facilitate more bottom-up decision-making on the ground.

“So, what happens? The column gets stopped. An impatient general is sitting back there in his armored or whatever vehicle. He goes forward to find out what’s going on because there’s no initiative,” said Petraeus.

“Again, there’s no noncommissioned officer corps. There’s no sense of initiative at junior levels. They wait to be told what to do. So he gets up there. And the Ukrainians have very, very good snipers, and they have just been picking them off left and right.”

Sukhovetsky was killed by a sniper, according to the Ukrainians, though the circumstances of the other generals’ deaths remain more mysterious.

Yahoo News reported last week that in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the CIA set up a covert program to train Ukrainian snipers.

“I think the training really paid off,” an unnamed former senior official told the publication.

Again, it is not clear whether the elite units that emerged from this program were involved in the killing of Russia’s generals during the current conflagration.

Also on the weekend, news emerged that the Ukrainians had for the first time killed a senior Russian naval officer: Andrey Paliy, who was the deputy commander of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Kyiv-born Paliy was apparently killed near Mariupol, a southeastern Ukrainian city that Russian forces are currently besieging and have largely destroyed.

Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.