By Eric Vandenbroeck
The Battle Problem Facing The New
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.