By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

The Battle Problem Facing The New Command

Vladimir Putin gave a clue this week about the mastermind behind Russia’s heaviest missile onslaught since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the early days. In a television address lauding the operation and warning of more to come, the Russian president said Monday’s strikes on cities across Ukraine — launched in retaliation for the attack on the Kerch bridge linking Russia to the annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea — were ordered: “at the defense ministry’s suggestion.” The remark pointed to Sergei Surovikin, a hardline general named commander of Moscow’s invasion forces two days earlier.

Sergei Surovikin was appointed as the overall commander by the Russian Ministry of Defense on Friday, and his prior experience includes forceful attacks against Syria.

His adversaries have described him as "General Armageddon," He has already displayed his brutal brand of warfare by beginning with a bombing campaign over important Ukrainian cities.

Russia has been without an empowered field commander since the beginning of the conflict in February, and it is anticipated that Surovikin has been chosen to go after hardliners. Sergei Surovikin is known for his attacks in Syria, where he ordered Russian soldiers to attack Syrian homes, schools, healthcare institutions, and markets, according to a 2020 Human Rights Watch assessment. Sergei Surovikin has launched many rocket attacks targeting civilian centers in Ukraine so far.

Russian President Vladimir Putin thus change the military culture of the conflict itself. It was a significant move but not necessarily for the reasons offered by most of the media. It came after Ukraine, armed primarily by the United States, had seized the initiative on the Ukrainian battlefield. Putin’s credibility was at stake even among ostensibly pro-war elements who were now starting to criticize his performance.

The origin of the criticism is essential. One of the loudest critics of Russia’s strategy in Ukraine has been Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s longtime functionary, who used extreme brutality at Putin’s behest to keep the uprising in Chechnya under control. Kadyrov and Putin were both committed to halting the fragmentation of Russia and recovering what could be recovered. Kadyrov supported the invasion of Ukraine but was appalled at the weakness of the Russian army, particularly its high command. From his point of view, a ruthless operation against the Ukrainian public and military was required – in other words, a Chechen-type war. So here we have a stalwart Putin ally publicly lambasting the incompetence and softness of the Russian army, only for a new commander to be named.

Commanders who look good in exercises and staff meetings sometimes fail in battle. Sometimes, replacing a commander, no matter the circumstance, is critical. It happens all the time. It’s been clear now that Russia’s war plan has been flawed from the beginning. A new war plan requires a new command. The new commander immediately ordered a barrage of missiles aimed at Ukraine.

War is about breaking the enemy’s will to resist; a ruthless assault in which everything is seen as a possible target is the first step. The second step is to make clear to Russian soldiers that they face extreme danger from their side if they fail to perform on the battlefield. Morale and motivation are important, but they don’t work if the army is ill-equipped or its soldiers ill-trained. Firing missiles signals what’s in store for the future, but that future won’t come only if troops are scared of their commanders. It comes with good training at all levels, with suitable weapons and other tools of modern warfare. Doing either and, ideally, both take time. An opportunely timed missile barrage helps a little in this regard.

An attack from the periphery would help even more to buy more time. For example, reports of Russian forces in Belarus and rumors that the Belarusian army is readying for war. If true, a southward thrust out of Belarus might well buy time. It would force Ukraine to defend itself on another front, threatening the Ukrainian supply line from Poland. This is easier said than done, of course. It’s unclear whether Belarus can fight high-intensity warfare, and getting Russian troops there is difficult.

A peripheral attack may have been possible before the Ukrainian army became battle-hardened and the U.S. started supplying weapons to Kyiv en masse. Likewise, a peace treaty might have been possible as well – that is, if anyone was seriously interested in it. None of it is possible when Russia is, by its standards, weak. A missile barrage, coupled with the reconstructed Russian military, is likely meant to create leverage for Russia where none had existed. The studied ferocity of the new commander could, in theory, create a basis for a settlement.

Ultimately, the U.S. controls the war’s course in Ukraine; therefore, Ukraine is hostage to American interests. But because Ukraine has lives at stake, it limits how long and intensely it will fight the war. The American goal is to keep Russian forces as far east as possible, away from NATO. The Russian goal is to regain all of Ukraine. So progress in this conflict depends to some degree on how credible the new Russian military leaders are and how they can motivate existing troops while building a new force come spring. Until then, they must demonstrate that the soldiers there must be taken seriously and that worse may yet be coming. They must frighten the Ukrainians and Americans. Next time, the criticism of someone like Kadyrov may not do. Production of weapons is the foundation of this war, and the U.S. dominates production. If Russia can’t rapidly match that, it has to make some concessions, possibly major ones. That is the battle problem facing the new command.

The praise from hardliners suggests Surovikin shares their demand for mobilizing Russia’s reserves as “cannon fodder,” said Kirill Rogov, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Putin’s decision backfired at home, with more people fleeing to Kazakhstan to escape the draft than conscripted into the army. But calling up an extra 200,000 men allows Russia to fight on without worrying about high casualties, Rogov said.



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