General Surovikin: A Different Russian Commander in Ukraine?
Part I of an assessment of the potential impact of a new unified commander for Russia
When observing the war in Ukraine, and its many levels of complexity, it is often simpler to see it as a contest of Ukraine versus Russia. Whether this is the political competition between national leaders, the vast information and influence operations being conducted by both nations, and the many battles occurring on the ground, much of the reporting about the Russians in Ukraine largely focusses on ‘the Russians’ as some amorphous mass.
The reality, however, is that this is a useful but not complete way in which to view or understand a conflict that has been catastrophic – for different reasons – for both of the belligerents. Another lens, which can assist in understanding the war, is that of leadership.
The most important leader in this war is President Zelensky. A former comedian and actor, he was underestimated by Western leaders and most analysts before the war commenced. Part of this may have been because of his limited military experience or that his approval rating by the Ukrainian people before the war commenced was under 50%.
As Eliot Cohen has written about the early days of the war, “the surprises come thick and fast. Vladimir Putin was supposed to be a master chess player, but he has shown himself to be erratic, grandiose, and wilful in a self-destructive way…Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was supposed to be out of his depth. But the former comic is an inspirational war leader, at home and abroad.”
Since the Russia invasion began in February 2022, Zelensky has unified his people, exhorted courage from the Ukrainian Armed Forces as well as inspiring millions of observers around the world.
Zelensky’s determination and energy - supported by the time bought on the battlefield by his soldiers – has seen the construction of an immense international regime of sanctions against Russia, massive amounts of lethal and non-lethal aid to Ukraine, and an outpouring of moral and diplomatic support from many nations. Zelensky’s online videos and statements are the stuff of legend. His words “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition” electrified his soldiers and international observers.
Without doubt, many national leaders in the West have looked at themselves in the mirror in the past nine months and wondered if they could meet the extraordinarily high standard of leadership set by Zelensky. The power and impact of strategic leaders matters.
This principled, servant leader of the Ukrainian people stands in contrast to the new commander of Russian military forces in Ukraine: General Sergei Surovikin. And like Zelensky, we should take care to ensure we do not underestimate the new Russian commander.
In the wake of Ukraine’s attack on the Kerch Bridge, Army General Surovikin was appointed as the overall Russian commander for the campaign in Ukraine. His appointment was welcomed by Russian nationalist groups and praised by the Wagner Group’s Yevgeniy Prigozhin.
He has a long service history in the Russian Army, having graduated from an officer training academy in Omsk in 1987. Serving in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria, he has gained a reputation for brutality. He has even served a stint in jail for his actions during the 1991 coup in Moscow and was convicted of illegal arms sales as a Major. One news outlet, after his appointment in October this year, described him as General Armageddon.
Almost immediately after his assumption of command, Surovikin launched a series of massed missile and drone attacks against Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure. In particular, this campaign, which remains ongoing, is focussed on the systemic destruction of Ukraine’s power generation and distribution network. Coming as it does in the lead up to the bitter Ukrainian winter, where temperatures can remain well below zero for long stretches of time, this is already imposing significant humanitarian suffering on the people of Ukraine. Efforts to remain electrical, and heating, infrastructure have been delayed by weather and availability of supplies.
Lawrence Freedman has described the situation as “a coercive Russian strategy against Ukrainian society…Russia is also trying to turn off the power and electricity in Ukraine. The Ukrainians cannot do the same against the Russians in terms of targeting infrastructure. The Ukrainians are winning on the battlefield, but they cannot hit back against the Russians on that strategic level.”
It has provided an early insight into how Surovikin will fight the Ukrainians.
Therefore, in their efforts to plan and execute future military operations, Ukrainian military leaders and their staffs will not just be looking at Russian military capabilities and dispositions. They will be assessing how a different command philosophy, and potentially a new level of brutality, from Surovikin might impact on Ukrainian operations throughout the winter and in to 2023.
Understanding the Enemy
The imperative to understand the enemy is an ancient one.
The great Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu writes that in order to succeed one must know oneself and one's enemy. This maxim is also mirrored in the writings of the Prussian theorist and soldier, Carl von Clausewitz, when he writes that “war is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will."
Understanding the enemy, particularly the motivations, incentives and inclinations of an enemy commander, is a central responsibility of military leaders and planning staffs. It is how we might understand his incentives and motivations and anticipate his strategy and plans. Such understanding of Surovikin is a foundation for the development of defeat mechanisms, which are the “methods by which friendly forces accomplish their missions against enemy opposition”. These defeat mechanisms are required at the tactical, operational and strategic levels to degrade Russian military capability and provide a foundation for an eventual Ukrainian victory in this war.
There is a need to better understand the enemy Russian commander and how he might construct a strategy to meet Putin’s requirements for what might be portrayed as a Russian victory in this war.
In recent weeks, Surovkin is likely to have been thinking hard about the Russian military campaign in Ukraine. As seen during the Kherson withdrawal, Surovikin appears to be a more competent commander than any of his predecessors. This will make him a much more dangerous military adversary for the Ukrainians.
But at the beginning of his command, General Surovikin finds himself leading an army which is on foreign territory, is nearly exhausted, has morale issues and has been subject to constant attrition since the beginning of the invasion. He has been bequeathed by his predecessors large swathes of Ukrainian territory in the east and south, which he must now defend and in 2023, expand.
Over winter, he will be defending territory that is integral to Putin’s view of success in the war. At the same time, he will be doing what he can to preserve his existing forces while deploying masses of newly mobilised troops to reconstitute battered units for the year ahead.
Another urgent task for Surovikin and his planners will include the development of a more resilient and harder to target logistics network. The Ukrainians have mastered the finding, fixing and destruction of Russian logistics nodes, particularly since the introduction of the longer range HIMARS systems in the middle of this year. While the Russians have demonstrated some adaptation to the introduction of this weapon system and its longer-range rockets, Surovikin will need to find a more systemic solution to counter the threat that HIMARS poses to his force. He will also be stockpiling fuel, supplies and munitions for the year ahead.
The reality is that General Surovikin not appointed as the Russian commander to defend ground. Regardless of whether this is realistic or not, Putin will expect more aggression, and greater military success, from his new military supremo in Ukraine. As Surovikin assembles his strategy for the coming year, what kind of considerations might shape his forward planning, based on what we have seen of him so far?
Aligning Russian Political Objectives with Military Capacity
It is likely that his first task will be to seek a better alignment between Putin’s political objectives and the military capacity of Russia’s armed forces. These two things have been poorly aligned since the beginning of the war. Putin’s aims were quite maximalist; he sought the overthrow of the Ukrainian government and the subjugation of the Ukrainian people. Unfortunately, he allocated quite limited military resources to this aim. Two hundred thousand troops, for a nation of the size and population of Ukraine, never made sense unless there was a completely benign environment in front of them.
As Andriy Zagorodnyuk writes in an Atlantic Council report on the war, “the invasion force assembled in early 2022 was woefully inadequate for the task at hand, but Putin’s personal obsession with the destruction of Ukraine meant that nobody dared to warn him of the dangers. Instead, Putin’s blind faith in the invincibility of the Russian army and his unhinged insistence on Ukraine’s illegitimacy were allowed to prevail over more sober military judgments.”
Few things transpired as expected in the early days of the war, for Russia or for many western analysts. The Ukrainians resisted to a degree that was unexpected by the Russian leadership. The Russians magnified their challenges with the execution of a dispersed invasion plan featuring four separate ground axes of advance in the north, northeast, east and south. They then compounded the problems of this small force, which was widely dispersed, by the lack of a unified commander and poor air-land integration. The misalignment of political objectives and military capacity has played a significant role in the poor performance of the Russians.
The concentration of combat power in the Donbas mid-2022 was a demonstration that the Russians were beginning to understand this. They adapted the dispositions of their force to focus on The Donbas, and as the 9 May speech by Putin telegraphed, they had potentially pared back their political objectives to securing the Donbas. Putin then performed a 180 degree turn by announcing larger political objectives with his annexation degree and as well as the partial mobilisation announcement.
As such, we might now recognise a type of ‘meeting in the middle’ between politics and the military. Politically, Russia has decided it wants five Ukrainian oblasts which is neither occupies nor appears to have the military capacity to seize. It is therefore mobilising people and industry to provide a greater military capacity for Ukrainian military operations.
Militarily, Surovikin has tailored operations in the short term, including the Kherson withdrawal, to account for his current force size and weaknesses. However, moving forward, he will be expected to conduct offensive operations with the enhanced numbers of soldiers from mobilisation and equipment from increased Russian industrial output.
In a 1988 article in The National Interest magazine, Williamson Murray and Alan Millet wrote that "It is more important to make correct decisions at the political and strategic level than it is at the operational or tactical level. Mistakes in operations and tactics can be corrected, but strategic mistakes live forever." Throughout this war, Putin has constantly failed to align his political objectives for Ukraine with the military means required to achieve them.
We will see in the coming months whether the efforts of Surovikin, as well as the mobilisation of people and industry in Russia, is able to have a meaningful impact on the political-military challenge.
Part II: Surovikin and the way ahead. Coming tomorrow.
CAVEAT: This thread is NOT about admiring an enemy military commander who has previously demonstrated brutality towards Syrian civilians, his own soldiers, and now against the Ukrainians. It is designed to provide insights into how to defeat him.
Image credit: https://greekreporter.com/2022/11/10/russia-forces-withdraw-kherson-ukraine/
Invasion map credit: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/02/24/maps-ukraine-russia-attack/
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Thanks for the insight. I’ve read your material across many platforms. It is always balanced and helpful in understanding the military situation in this war.
A very helpful and balanced analysis especially about the political and military mismatch RU faces