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How Russia’s New Commander in Ukraine Could Change the War

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Last week, Russia announced that it was replacing General Sergei Surovikin—who had been put in charge of the war in Ukraine only three months earlier—with another general, Valery Gerasimov. The change surprised many observers. Surovikin was thought to have improved the Russian war effort, and Gerasimov was at least partially responsible for planning the disastrous initial invasion. But Gerasimov is close to the Kremlin, and will now get another chance. “They have taken someone who is competent and replaced him with someone who is incompetent, but who has been there a long time and who has shown that he is loyal,” Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, told the Times.

To talk about the reshuffling at the top of the Russian command, and the current state of the war, I spoke by phone with Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an expert on the Russian military. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed possible reasons for the latest shakeup, where the Russian war effort has and hasn’t improved, the strange role of the mercenary Wagner Group, and what has surprised Lee most about the past eleven months of fighting.

Surovikin, the general who was just demoted, has been credited with turning things around a little bit during the past three months. What has and hasn’t changed in that period?

The key thing in the last few months is that, at the end of September, Russia began mobilization. That was after losing most of Kharkiv, and after they’d begun their offensive at Kherson, when it became clear to Russia and to everyone else that they didn’t have sufficient manpower to hold the front lines. They had to do something.

Putin had resisted declaring mobilization. People thought he might do that on Victory Day, which is in May, or over the summer. But he kept choosing to hold off. One of the things that has characterized Russia’s strategy is procrastination, where Putin hasn’t made certain tough decisions and has waited until things started to slow down or things started to go the wrong way before making a decision.

Before Surovikin was put in charge, there was reporting from the New York Times that unnamed Russian generals had wanted to pull back from Kherson and that Putin had said no. I interpreted that as Surovikin trying to pull back across the Dnipro River, and basically being told that he wasn’t allowed to. It made perfect sense to do so because Dnipro is a large river, a large barrier, and it was an easy way for Russia to solidify its lines and to hold its front lines elsewhere. And when Surovikin was elevated, Putin probably passively accepted that the situation on the ground had changed and he had to basically relent more.

Since Surovikin has been in charge, the situation has largely improved for Russia. They did pull back from the right, or west, bank of Kherson. That decision probably needed to be made regardless, although he serves as a useful kind of fall man, where the blame can be pinned on him instead of the more senior leadership.

But, over all, the war has gone better for Russia. There are obviously some fundamental problems that he had to deal with, but Russia’s been striking civilian infrastructure. That’s been a problem for Ukraine. And, ultimately, the front mostly stabilized since they pulled back from the right bank of Kherson. They made some gains in Soledar recently. And there’s an open question of who is in a better position to fight this attritional fight—that part isn’t fully clear. Now Russia has mobilized, and the Wagner Group is throwing convicts into the fight.

Obviously, Surovikin came in at a difficult time—there are all sorts of issues—but throughout this war Putin has demanded things of his commanders that weren’t possible. They didn’t have the capabilities to do certain things, and he kept telling people, officers, that they couldn’t retreat from areas when they needed to retreat. There are broader problems that I think Putin forced upon his leaders. In my view, Surovikin has been relatively successful in stabilizing the front. Now that mobilization is occurring, they can train these units, they can equip these units, and then eventually Russia might have a manpower advantage once those units are deployed. The near-term strategy, I think, was basically: “Let’s prevent our lines from collapsing. Let’s be able to hold what we have and wait until mobilization. Then we can have more success or potentially even go back on the offensive.”

Gerasimov was known primarily for putting into effect the initial invasion plan. Is that accurate?

I’m not sure exactly what he did. I mean, obviously he played a key role as the chief of general staff. Before the war, I thought that there would likely be an escalation, but I assumed that, if they were going to do it, Putin would have provided political goals, basically, to the Defense Ministry, and that the general staff would’ve gone through the planning process and planned out a military operation. I think what in fact happened was that the concept of the operation was mostly developed by the F.S.B. [the main successor to the K.G.B.] and Putin, with a couple of very key senior officials in the Kremlin. It seems as though the plan was forced on the Russian military, because they ultimately executed a campaign that deviated from their doctrine—the way they trained, the way they fight, and so on.

Gerasimov undoubtedly played a key role. He’s the most senior officer in the Russian military. But whether we can say that this was Gerasimov’s plan—that I’m not so sure.

Right, so it’s too glib to say that the guy who messed up initially is back in charge.

Yeah. Part of the issue is that, at this point, Russia’s gone through so many senior officers. Of the five officers who seemed to be the senior commanders when the war began—the commanders of the four main military districts and the commander of the Russian Airborne Forces—all five of them have been fired. The two leaders of the Kyiv campaign were relieved back in April.

I think there are two things that might be behind why they’re putting Gerasimov in charge. The official line from the Russian military is that the conflict has become more important and so they decided to elevate the senior commander. And that potentially could be true, if they are deciding to do another invasion from Belarus. The other explanation is that there’s an internal dynamic going on. There is all this different reporting about different factions within the Russian Defense Ministry, and Ukrainian intelligence has been suggesting that Surovikin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner, have a good relationship—and that Gerasimov has a different faction.

That’s interesting in terms of another story I was going to ask you about. Last week, the Times reported that Russian spokesmen were contradicting claims made by the Wagner Group about seizing Soledar, a salt-mine town in Donetsk.

Yeah, the relationship between Wagner and the Defense Ministry has been interesting for years. Back in Syria, Wagner was working with the G.R.U. [Russia’s military-intelligence directorate]. I think that the relationship evolved. There’s one Wagner veteran who wrote a book, and who fought in Syria, who basically said the Russian Defense Ministry got upset that Wagner was getting all this credit for a lot of battlefield successes in Syria. And they started providing worse equipment or not supporting them as much.

There is always this issue when you start relying on an organization outside the military. Is there a command problem? But power in Russia basically works based on whatever your connection to Putin is. Obviously, Prigozhin has a connection to Putin. When the Russian military sustained a lot of casualties early on in the war, they started trying to recruit additional soldiers to fight. The problem is that the Russian military doesn’t really have a good reserve system, whereas Wagner has a history, going back to Syria, of recruiting people from different cities. And so, when Russia needed manpower in April to sustain this war in the battle of the Donbas, Wagner started becoming important, because they had an existing infrastructure for recruiting people and bringing people on quickly.

More recently, they’ve been bringing on prisoners and all these other kinds of people, and their size has grown substantially. That’s been very important for Russia—to have this huge manpower contribution. Wagner is clearly playing a very key role in Bakhmut and Soledar, which have been the hottest parts of the front for the last few months. One of the issues is that Prigozhin is deliberately putting himself as the public face of this war. He’s going to the front lines, he’s putting on gear, he’s visiting soldiers or fighters in the trenches. He’s visiting wounded fighters, he’s awarding people.

He has been heavily criticizing a number of Russian generals, including Aleksandr Lapin, who used to be one of the senior officers in charge of the war, as well as suggesting that the senior leadership in the Defense Ministry is out of touch. And so he is basically putting himself in a position where, if you didn’t know better, and you’re a Russian citizen, you might think Prigozhin is the most important figure leading the war.

You mentioned that Russia has had some success going after civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. What are the long-term goals of doing so? Is the hope here that you make quality of life miserable enough for Ukrainians that there’s a change in attitude toward the war? Or do you think that there’s some other direct military objective that the Russians are hoping to accomplish?

I think it’s an attempt to make the war more costly: more costly for Ukrainians, potentially more costly for Western countries that are supporting Ukraine. For Ukraine, obviously, the economy is still very important. And, as much as possible, it’s important for Ukrainian cities to go back to normal. There’s still a war being fought, but, if you want to have businesses go back to doing what they’re supposed to be doing, you need to have some sense of normalcy in those cities. By going after power plants, you make it difficult, and you make it more likely that Ukraine’s economy can’t recover quickly. It might also have an element of coercion—trying to get Ukraine to maybe make other concessions, or to make this war more costly for foreign countries and to signal to them, “You need to stop supporting Ukraine. You just can’t win this war.”

One thing that’s clear is that the Russians often focus on what’s going on that month, without thinking about what the result will be two, three, four months from now. These kinds of bombing campaigns don’t typically force the other side to give in. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that Ukrainians are going to give up based on that, but certainly it makes the war more costly.

The West is now going to start sending tanks to Ukraine, although different Western countries are taking different lines on this. How much can tanks make a difference?

It’s all about combined arms and how they work together. Any one component by itself is typically not sufficient to change the war, but it can help things. Ukraine already has a lot of tanks. Many of those they captured from Russia. There’s a debate about what Ukraine needs the most. Tanks are useful. But part of the question is what kind of marginal benefit is offered by Western tanks over the tanks that Ukraine is currently operating. They’re definitely better, but there are other types of weapons that Ukraine wants more, such as attack and drone systems. It would be a bigger qualitative advantage if they received those.

But, ultimately, if you want to do offensive operations and you’re doing that against an entrenched enemy, you need to have a lot of things, a lot of different arms working together. Part of it is having enough artillery ammunition. Part of it is having infantry-fighting vehicles that can escort infantry close to the trenches, so they can dismount and still have some protection before they reach the trench line. In many respects, a lot of this stuff is not that different from the Second World War. There’s new technology, but a lot of the same things are still important.

The other issue is that Ukraine keeps receiving these different systems from multiple NATO countries, in somewhat small batches. All these vehicles have different logistics, spare parts, training. And so it becomes a big logistical problem for Ukraine; in an ideal world, they’d be receiving one system and all the NATO members could provide the same type of tank and so on. And the reason we talk about Germany a lot with tanks is because of the Leopard tank. It’s a German-produced tank, and it’s very common in NATO militaries, which means that a lot of NATO members could contribute a certain number of Leopards.

It’s been almost a year since the initial invasion. What has surprised you the most, from a military perspective, about the way the last year has gone?

I expected the Russian military to fight the way they trained to fight, the way they’ve fought before, the way they write about things. The way they’ve fought this war, at least in the beginning, deviated from all that. I thought the template that Russia would apply would be a little bit like the 2008 war with Georgia, but on a more ambitious, larger scale, assuming they’d have a significant amount of resistance.

Instead, Russia seems to have applied a template from 1968, when they intervened in Czechoslovakia, or 1979, when they intervened in Afghanistan. In both those operations, they didn’t assume that much resistance. In those cases, there were conditions that led the Soviets to believe, O.K., we don’t necessarily have to destroy the military in these countries to have success. Whereas Ukraine was not an ally. The conditions were not nearly as favorable to Russia, and yet they still executed the plan as though the conditions were the same. That part was very surprising.

How would you characterize the elements of the plan in Ukraine, in practice?

In the Ukraine operation, the two priorities were speed and surprise. Large militaries need a lot of warning. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, there were months and months of preparation. That didn’t happen in this war because units just didn’t know they were going to war. I think most soldiers found out less than twenty-four hours prior.

One of the things we saw in the first couple days of the war was tanks breaking down. We kept seeing vehicles break down for maintenance issues because they didn’t have enough gas, and all these other kinds of mistakes. And that’s basically because they weren’t told they were going to war. They didn’t have time to prepare. And because, again, surprise was a priority, that meant not giving the military enough time to prepare.

These militaries don’t work that way. They’re not going to be effective. Russian ground units were told, “Drive to cities and go as fast as possible.” You’d have battalions drive beyond artillery-support range. They’d drive beyond combined-arms-support range. They were driving ahead of tanks and getting into conventional fights that they were not prepared to be in.

Some of this was due to fundamental weaknesses in the Russian military, like what we saw in Syria. But we saw a very small part of the Russian military fight there. In Ukraine, we saw the majority of the Russian military fighting all at once. And obviously there’s quite a lot of variance in the quality of Russian units. But part of it, too, is just—it’s hard to think of how you could set up a military more for failure on the political level than the way that the Kremlin set up the Russian military in this case.

The conclusion is that the operation was a kind of F.S.B.-type operation. The plan was for regime change in Kyiv. The F.S.B. apparently thought that they had enough collaborators and that they could do that quite quickly. The Russian military would basically occupy cities before they could respond. And that’s kind of like what happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968. But, of course, in this case, with Ukraine, that’s not what happened. And the Russian military wasn’t ready to deal with that resistance.

And, finally, the Russian military’s not very good at adaptation, because it has more centralized decision-making than NATO militaries. They needed more warning than we would need if they’re going to war.

Has anything surprised you from the Ukrainian side, specifically?

The Ukrainians have performed well. Across the board, it’s been very impressive seeing how they have united throughout this. They’ve done a lot of creative things. It’s been very clear Ukrainians do not want to be controlled. One of the things that’s always impressed me is that there are all these people who, on February 24th, were nonmilitary Ukrainians, who joined afterward, and now they are experienced people who are very committed to retaking all of the Ukrainian territory, regardless of the costs. ♦

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