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What Now Gerasimov?
Russia’s Next Move in Ukraine
Counteroffensive and defensive actions are taking place in Ukraine, but I will not say in detail what stage they are at…They are all in a positive mood. Pass that on to Putin.
President Zelensky, June 2023
Over the past week, the Ukrainian armed forces have come under an intense spotlight as a multitude of analysts pore over reports to divine how the 2023 offensive is progressing. While this is an important activity in military institutions and in the open-source world, it is much too early for such strategic judgements.
It is however timely to review the Russian response. Having culminated in their 2023 offensive, the Russians must now (largely) turn to the strategic defensive to defend against the Ukrainian campaign just commenced. In particular, we might question the next moves for the overall Russian commander, General Valery Gerasimov.
An Uninspiring Track Record So Far
In an article published in May 2023, I characterised Gerasimov as a four-time strategic loser. This is important context in considering his response to the developing Ukrainian 2023 offensive. A brief exploration of his recent failures are as follows.
Failure one was the original plan for the invasion of Ukraine. Based on assumptions that the Ukrainians could not put up an effective defence, that the Ukrainian government would flee the country and that the West would provide minimal interference, Russian plans focussed on a ten-day campaign to take over Ukraine and then revert to an occupation force. Contrary to Russian expectations, the Ukrainians fought back. Russian forces bogged down and eventually withdrew from northern Ukraine, although they had more success in the south and east. As the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Gerasimov and Russian Defence Minister Shoigu would have played a key role in the planning and approval of this plan.
Gerasimov’s second failure was the chaotic first few weeks of the Russian mobilisation after it was announced by President Putin in September 2022. Gerasimov should have anticipated such a move once it was clear the war was not going well; that is his job afterall. The Soviet Army during the Cold War had extensive mobilisation plans, resources, and training staff for the expansion of its ground forces. Gerasimov, a product of the Soviet era, neglected the requirement for the infrastructure and training cadres for such mobilisation surges. This is largely due to a third failure.
Failure three for Gerasimov was the decade-long program of transformation overseen by Gerasimov and Defence Minister Shoigu. Commenced in 2012, and designed to professionalise the Russian military, modernise its equipment and bring it to a higher state of readiness, this program removed much of the old Soviet architecture for mobilisation. This was no accident; it was a deliberate design choice. One of the impacts of this transformation of Russia’s Army was that it removed the capacity for rapid expansion. And as the Ukraine ‘special military operation’ has demonstrated, the Gerasimov-Shoigu institutional reforms have not built the type of modern, integrated and well-led military organisation that is essential to success in modern warfare.
To round out his questionable record, General Gerasimov assumed command of the Russian forces in Ukraine in January, and with little delay launched a wide-scale offensive. A series of thrusts were conducted on five main axes of advance from the Kreminna region, and all the way south through Bakhmut, Avidivka, Donetsk and Vuhledar. Michael Kofman and Rob Lee have written:
Gerasimov launched an ill-conceived and ill-timed offensive across the Donbas starting in late January. The Russian military, still recovering, was in no position to conduct offensive operations given its deficits in force quality, equipment, and ammunition. Moscow had mobilized more than 300,000 personnel, which it quickly used to replenish the Russian forces, but it could not restore sufficient offensive potential. Quantity matters, but a military cannot rebuild its quality in just a few months.
The Russian military in Ukraine experienced very limited success with these ground offensives. By April, despite small gains around Bakhmut, the Russian 2023 offensives had largely culminated. According to US intelligence sources, the Russians have lost over 100,000 soldiers since December 2022, including 20,000 killed. They have also lost so much equipment that tanks from the 1950s are being issued to Russian units in Ukraine. Gerasimov had – again – overseen a military campaign that relied on too many different axes of advance, each of which was under-resourced and incapable of operational breakthroughs. In doing so, he squandered any remaining capacity for offensive operations.
Before considering Gerasimov’s options, what are some of the constraints he now has to work with?
First, the ineffective offensives launched by Gerasimov this year have consumed huge proportions of his forces’ ammunition and equipment in addition to the number of soldiers killed and wounded. This will constrain, but not entirely inhibit, Gerasimov’s ability to effectively respond to Ukrainian attacks in the south and the east. And while the Russians have constructed a huge number of obstacles in depth across their front line (see a good, updated map of these obstacles by Brady Africk here), Gerasimov still has a massive amount of occupied territory to defend.
Second, Gerasimov has several subordinate commanders that he needs to collaborate with and coordinate to build a cohesive overall defensive strategy. In a report earlier this year, the Institute for the Study of War examined the changeover of Russian Military District Commanders since the Russian invasion commenced in February 2022. Not a single Military District commander from the original invasion remains. Indeed, most have only been in their appointments since January this year. Most important to Gerasimov will be the commanders of the Southern, Eastern and Central Military Districts as well as the Airborne Forces (VDV) Commander, the Commander in Chief of the Russian Aerospace Forces and Commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
And then there are the Private Military Companies, including Wagner…
The Ukrainians know where the boundaries are in operational responsibilities between commands, and their operational design will seek to exploit these ‘joins in the map’. Gerasimov needs to continue to improve the integration of the operational output of these forces if he is to mount an effective defence against the Ukrainian offensive. It already appears that Russian forces are being moved between Ukrainian oblasts as a result of Russian destruction of the Kakhovka Dam. Gerasimov will probably have to make more cross boundary moves of Russian reserves as the Ukrainian offensive builds momentum.
Third, Gerasimov will be keeping an eye on force levels. His 2023 offensives have drained his force of many of the reinforcements it received in the wake of the 2022 partial mobilisation. The Ukrainian offensive is certain to focus on the destruction of as many Russian units as possible. And while there may be strategic reserves being held in the event that the Ukrainians make significant gains in their offensives, Gerasimov is sure to be thinking about another round of mobilisations to top up his force in Ukraine.
Fourth, his operational logistics framework will be essential to supporting the Russian defensive plan. It will also be a key target for the Ukrainians in order to degrade Russian ammunition and fuel holdings. If they can limit fuel and ammunition availability for Russian combat forces, the Ukrainians will restrict Russian responses to their tactical or operational penetrations and constrain the mobility of Russian reserves. Gerasimov will need to focus on an integrated air and ground defence of his logistics to prevent attack by drones, missiles, long-range artillery as well as by Ukrainian special forces and resistance forces in rear areas.
Finally, Gerasimov remains the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and First Deputy Minister of Defence. As such, he also needs to keep an eye on the defence of Russia’s borders, particularly given the recent Belgorod incursions and drone strikes in Moscow. These were clearly designed as strategic distractions by the Ukrainians to force the Russians to reconsider the disposition of the ground and air defence forces. They were also a political and psychological operation against the Russian leadership and citizens of Russia. Gerasimov’s Moscow responsibilities - and loyalty to Putin - will distract him from his command responsibilities in Ukraine.
Thus, Gerasimov has multiple challenges to deal with. Not only must he deal with higher level military strategy, and the coordination of Russian military operations, he must continue to provide the politico-military interface between the Russian military and President Putin. Even before he has to ponder his options to respond to the new Ukrainian offensive operations against Russian forces in the east and the south, Gerasimov has massive responsibilities.
Options for Gerasimov
What are Gerasimov’s options now that the Ukrainian 2023 offensive has commenced?
Gerasimov has few options open to him. Because Putin sees benefit in drawing out the war, holding ground will be the central component of any Gerasimov option. With Ukraine reliant on western weapons, munitions and economic aid, Putin appears comfortable to wait out Ukraine and the West by holding ground and negotiating down the track once Ukraine and/or the West tires from the war.
I think this is actually a tenuous proposition. All of Putin’s other assumptions about Ukraine and the war have been proved wrong – why would his decision making suddenly improve? That doesn’t mean Putin won’t stick with this ‘wait them out’ strategy for the time being.
Option 1: Hang Tough. Gerasimov’s first option is to hang tough for the time being and watch how the Ukrainian offensive develops. We are only in the early days of the Ukrainian 2023 campaign, and the vast majority of its offensive combat power has yet to be committed. As such, Gerasimov will probably want to wait for as long as possible as see where the Ukrainian main effort is eventually focussed. This could be the east or the south. Gerasimov, possibly mindful of the Kherson-Kharkiv one-two punch last year, will be watching for operations that are feints and for other Ukrainian deception. His preferred option is probably to retain all Ukrainian territory he currently occupies, absorb the Ukrainian offensives, hopefully demonstrate minimal Ukrainian success while preparing for Russian offensive operations later this year.
Option 2: Hang Tough (plus). Gerasimov’s next option is a variation on Option 1, but with limited offensive jabs at Ukrainian weak spots if they open up. This is a more complex option because he would need to assemble the combat and support forces for an offensive operation from his already weakened force. This would probably show up quickly in the Ukrainian intelligence collection plan and be targeted. While it might be an option, the Russians have not demonstrated a flair for making major gains with their offensive operations this year. As such, I think this option – while attractive – is of limited feasibility at this time.
Option 3: Reorient the Defence. Perhaps the most politically difficult – but militarily effective – would be a reorientation of the Russian defence around Crimea and the Donbas. This would mean that the Russians would be giving up much (but not all) of the territory they illegally seized since February 2022. This would see them focus their defence on three areas – Luhansk, Donetsk and Crimea. It would shorten the front line significantly and allow the constitution of significant mobile reserves for the Russians. However, this would see the ‘land bridge’ to Crimea erased and would be politically very difficult for Putin. This may be a useful fallback position if things go badly for the Russians in the coming months but is unlikely to be favourably considered as an option in the current environment.
The Weeks Ahead for Gerasimov
In the short term, Gerasimov is unlikely to make significant changes in his overall plan for the defence of the Ukrainian territory his forces occupy. It is simply too early for major adjustments. The Ukrainian 2023 campaign has some way to go, and Gerasimov will have his intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems working overtime to confirm Ukrainian troop concentrations and divine their operational intentions.
Therefore, in the short term, Gerasimov is most likely to ‘hang tough’. That doesn’t mean there won’t be bitter fighting on the ground. Nor does it mean the pace of the vicious drone and missile assaults on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure is likely to slacken.
The track record of Gerasimov in this war makes for unimpressive reading. He was strategically impatient in launching the 2023 Russian offensive and has not yet delivered any results to Putin other than holding on to Russia’s currently occupied territory. This might be enough in the medium term, but it assumes he still possesses large tracts of Ukraine after their offensive. This will probably not be the case.
There is an old saying that “when your enemy is making mistakes, don’t get in their way”. For some time, Gerasimov has shown an aptitude for making strategic mistakes. The Ukrainians will be hoping he keeps this form in his command of the Russians defending occupied Ukraine in the months ahead.
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