THE Western media portrays Russian President Putin’s appointment of Valery Gerasimov as commander of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine as a demotion or humiliation for the present theatre commander, Sergei Surovikin, nicknamed ‘General Armageddon’. May I (as usual) beg to differ somewhat?
This move takes place against the background of the fall of Soledar, the likely envelopment and capture of Bakhmut and as a consequence, the abandonment of Ukrainian counter-offensives to the south, using the forces intended for that mission to hold the line in the Donbas. It could be argued therefore that the Russians have been shaping the battlespace for something else, fixing Ukrainian reserves and creating favourable force ratios elsewhere, as I have already argued. Moreover, although Nato armoured vehicles will not arrive in time to make any difference to the conduct of operations in the short term – the delivery times, training requirement, spares packages and training for maintenance crews and the supply of ammunition are all major muscle movements requiring at least three months – by the late spring, Ukrainian combat power will begin to increase. Russian action is probably imperative, therefore, before that occurs. If this is the case, then what is happening is an increase in the scale of Russian operations, with the opening of several fronts. Surovkin retains his command but becomes one of several subordinates subject to a wider span of command and control, a more senior, experienced commander and a more capable theatre-level staff.
The appointment of Valery Gerasimov, although it is without doubt a game changer, will not surprise military professionals and analysts. He is already Chief of the Defence Staff. He played a key role in the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, engineered the support for Assad in Syria and designed the initial plans for the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. He is also one of the Russian military’s most serious intellects. His speech to the Russian Academy of Military Sciences in February 2013 (1) along with a report on hybrid warfare has been much quoted and has led to the definition of a style of warfare known as ‘the Gerasimov Doctrine’. In fact, the style of warfare he described had been under development for twenty years as the foundation of renewed Russian confrontation with the West and is more usually known as the Primakov doctrine, after former foreign and prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov. As I have described before in this medium, the doctrine stresses the use of both military and non-military means of warfare, with the emphasis being on non-military means to the ratio of four to one. These non-military means include, of course, economic warfare, especially energy – diplomacy and nuclear blackmail. In addition, Gerasimov and Primakov emphasise ‘the importance of controlling the information space and the real-time coordination of all aspects of a campaign, in addition to the use of targeted strikes deep in enemy territory and the destruction of critical civilian as well as military infrastructure.’ (2) Sounds familiar?
How much warning did Gerasimov have for this appointment? It is unlikely to have been sprung on him and he will have insisted on time to prepare – the thought of refusing would never have entered his head. This probably means that a switch by the Russians from primarily defensive tactics to offensive is imminent. The Orthodox Christmas is now over, the damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure has been deep and Ukrainian casualties dreadful. Russian preparatory moves and the re-training of reservists are likely to be complete. The weather is favourable. Nato chiefs meet next on January 20 and perhaps need to be given something to think about.
Gerasimov will take a broad view over the whole theatre of operations. He has a number of options open to him, all of which will include the use of air and sea delivered weapons and deep strikes: capitalise on success around Bakhmut and bounce the Kramatorsk/Slovyansk line; push north from Soledar to meet a simultaneous thrust southwards from Belgorod along the Oskil River; or push north from Ugledar to link up with Bakhmut. All these options would envelop and destroy large numbers of Ukrainian regular troops. Any of them could also be combined with a move south from Belarus to cut the Nato supply line around Lvov.
Of course, the success of any move depends, as ever, on a far more professional performance by Russian battlefield units. If this does not materialise then this appointment will prove as much of a poisoned chalice for Gerasimov, however glittering his career to date, as to his predecessors.
(1) V.Gerasimov, The Value of Science Is in the Foresight. Military Review, January–February 2016, p. 23-29.
(2) Martin Murphy, ‘Understanding Russia’s Concept for Total War in Europe’, Heritage Foundation, 12 September 2016.