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If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles. if you do not know your enemies, but know yourself, you may win or lose. If you do not know your enemies or yourself, you will be imperiled in every battle.
Sun Tzu, “The Art of War” Chapter III: The Strategy of the Attack
It is a military truism, since ancient times, that an army that cannot accurately assess its own capabilities will inevitably and unnecessarily imperil itself. And yet, at the heart of any true military disaster is almost always an army that overestimated what it was capable of accomplishing.
gerasimov in de facto charge (February 2022—October 2022)
Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov is the highest ranking soldier in the Russian Armed Forces. Although Vladimir Putin famously declined to name an overall theater commander over the Russo-Ukrainian War at the start of the conflict, it’s widely believed that Gerasimov was intricately involved and was central to the pre-war planning for the initial invasion of Ukraine.
The invasion was an unmitigated disaster.
Russia invaded Ukraine on four different axes of advance—five, if you count the Russian invasion towards Kherson oblast and Russian advances towards Zaporizhzhia oblast in the south (Axis 4) as separate advances.
What followed was a highly disorganized disaster for Russia, described by experts as nothing short of a “military catastrophe.”
Russia’s thrust towards Ukraine’s capitol of Kyiv (Axis 1) failed with massive losses, including the decimation of Russia’s most elite VDV airborne forces (and they still haven’t recovered to this day). Russia’s attack towards Kharkiv was halted (Axis 2), despite the Russian-speaking city (as well as Sumy) being literally across the border from Russia. Russia’s attempts to press through Ukraine’s fortified lines in Donbas failed to move any line of defense more than a few kilometers (Axis 3).
A more focused attack towards Kyiv, cutting off its rail access to supplies from the West and encircling the city with greater forces might’ve had a far better chance of success—and decapitated the Ukrainian state. The dispersed nature of the Russian attacks, presuming Russian superiority and vastly underestimating Ukrainian strength and resolve, was widely analyzed to be the cause of Russian defeat.
Regrouping from the stinging defeat at Kyiv, Russia redeployed its forces to eastern Ukraine. Gerasimov’s plan B was was a massively ambitious encirclement plan aimed at engulfing Ukraine’s best brigades deployed on the eastern front.
These attempts quickly faltered.
Russia began progressively scaling down the size of its attempted encirclement (and the number of forces required to pull it off) in gradual steps from the initial encirclement attempt in March 2022, Gerasimov took personal command of the Izium forces in an attempt to encircle Ukraine’s Eastern Forces on April 27, 2022. This major encirclement attempt also failed, with minimal gains as Gerasimov’s forces at Izium were stymied just south of the town at tiny Dovhen’ke.
Russia finally began to make gains in late May after switching to more modest encirclement attempts, starting in late May through June 2022. This led to the capture of Lyman. However, further strategic gains were minimal, and by June the main thrust of Russian forces simply were making massed frontal assaults on Severodonetsk, which they finally took on June 25, 2022, at a massive cost to Russian soldiers and equipment.
By attempting unrealistically optimistic, grand, sweeping maneuvers, Gerasimov wasted time and resources, earning nothing but a costly pyrrhic victory at Severodonetsk. Russia was so decimated in this region, that just over two months later, Ukraine liberated most of Kharkiv oblast in a blitzkrieg-style attack. By Sept. 11, just about a year ago, Ukraine had liberated the strategically important rail hubs of Kupiansk, Izium, and Lyman. Ukraine was happy to trade Severodonetsk for those three cities.
Next, Ukraine trapped Russian forces in northern Kherson oblast. With their backs to the mile-wide Dnipro River at Kherson, Ukraine used HIMARS rocket artillery strikes to destroy the two bridges supplying their occupation, systematically degrading their logistics while directly pressuring their defensive lines.
As Russian positions got progressively weaker at Kherson, Putin finally made a change—on Oct. 8, 2022, he appointed General Sergery Surovikin the first official theater-wide commander of Russian forces in Ukraine.
surovikin in command (October 2022—January)
One of Surovikin’s first and most consequential decisions was to withdraw Russian forces from Kherson, which he clearly saw as indefensible. He even managed to withdraw his forces in an orderly manner—something no other Russian managed before (or after). While Russia was forced to abandon some heavy equipment and ammunition that could not easily be taken across by pontoon bridge, it was a fraction of the haul Ukraine managed in its Kharkiv counteroffensive, when panicked Russians chaotically fled their positions. The Kherson retreat was considered a success by western analysts, despite the devastating symbolic blow the loss of Kherson represented. It was the only regional capital Russia had managed to capture the entire war, and it had even pretended to annex the city into Russia proper on Sept. 30, 2022.)
Under Surovikin’s command, Russia refocused on the Donbas. What had previously been a bloody stalemate in the Vuhledar direction for the Russians began moving in late October, overrunning Pavlivka in late November, and beginning to put pressure on Vuhledar. Russian forces suffered serious lopsided losses in this advance, but nonetheless gained ground. Russia would continue suffering massive losses in this direction, as Ukraine’s Vuhledar defenses occupy high ground. High ground matters.
Surovikin also switched tactics at Bakhmut, a battle that had taken on great symoblic importance to Russian morale. Surovikin relied mostly on well-supported Wagner attritional attacks targeting the city’s northern and southern flanks, taking the surrounding high ground, rather than the previous head-on direct attacks that Ukraine had managed to fend off.
Soledar to the north fell to Russian forces in early January, with Klishchiivka to the south falling a little more than a week later. With Russia controlling the heights and gaining “fire control” of the roads supplying the defenders, the bloody capture of Bakhmut was now inevitable.
Surovikin was also the architect of Russia’s cruise and ballistic missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure over the winter, but his efforts to break Ukrainian resistance failed. Although the attacks inflcited widespread misery in Ukraine’s civilian populace, and millions of damage, the attacks galvanized the West into stepping up their supply of modern air defense systems, including multiple batteries of the billion-dollar Patriot system. The political effects appear to have far outweighed any military gains through depletion of Ukrainian SAM missiles.
That said, Surovikin was also thinking well ahead.
In preparation for the presumed Ukrainian spring counteroffensive (which turned out to be a summer counteroffensive), Surovikin ordered the construction of a series of defensive lines; the most formidable of which came to be known as “The Surovikin Line.”
Surovikin correctly identified Tokmak and Melitopol as the likely primary goals of the Ukrainian offensive, and placed the heaviest defenses in this sector. By implementing this “defense in depth” strategy, he was taking a harshly pragmatic and realistic view of Russian military capability, assuming that Russia could not stop the Ukrainian advance cold.
Rather than focusing all his resources on the construction of the densest possible strip of defensive structures right behind the front lines in an all-or-nothing gamble, Surovikin layered defenses, assuming Ukraine had the ability to breach any single line. Otherwise, there would be no need to build a third or fourth line.
In other words, Surovikin’s defensive construction layout presumed Russian weakness in the face of a Ukrainian assault. Thus, Surovikin’s plan was for Russia to gradually grind down Ukrainian brigades as they were forced to breach line after line of Russian defense, until Russia fell back to its final defense lines with as much of its combat power preserved as possible.
However, Surovikin would not be permitted to put his plan into action.
gerasimov takes charge of the offensive (january—May)
Just three months after Surovikin’s appointment, on Jan. 11, Putin replaced Surovikin with … Gerasimov again.
Russia endured a series of costly military engagements from January to June. Vuhledar was a continuing fiasco, as Russian armored units repeated attempted to overrun Ukrainian positions atop Vuhledar’s high ground.
In March, Russian attacks at Bakhmut shifted back from those flanking efforts around Bakhmut’s high ground, to bloody all out frontal assaults on the city. Russia would finally capture the city on May 22.
Russia’s massive personnel and equipment losses at Bakhmut and Vuhledar, for little to no real gain, weakened Russian preparedness against the Ukrainian counterattack.
Russia also lost its most successful offensive force as animosity between the mercenary Wagner Group and Gerasimov culminated in Yevgeny Prighozin’s short-lived rebellion in late June.
The rebellion failed to remove Gerasimov—a key Prigozhin demand, and much of Wagner was disarmed or banished to Belarus. Prigozhin was dead within two months. Gerasimov’s inability to work with Prigozhin cost him his most successful tactical asset.
Meanwhile, Surovikin was accused of helping Prigozhin plan the uprising, placed under house arrest, removed as head of Russian Aerospace Forces, and reassigned to a backwater post in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)—a dumping ground for disgraced generals.
gerasimov’s defense plan (June—present)
Construction had already begun on the Surovikin Line by January, and for whatever reason, Gerasimov did not bother to fundamentally rework Surovikin’s defensive lines. Existing work was mostly finished, though some lines—like the one Ukraine just broke through near Verbove, were reported to be in poor shape.
However, Gerasimov made three big changes fundamentally changing Surovikin’s defensive strategy:
- Russia committed most of its available landmines to the first line of defense;
- Russia committed much of what could have been an operation reserve to an offensive in the Northern and Eastern Fronts; and
- Russia committed nearly all its operational reserves to the defense of the first line of defense.
In other words, Gerasimov abandoned Surovikin’s defense-in-depth strategy, in favor of what retired Australian Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan notes is an active defense strategy. So rather than defending from the well-placed defensive lines and holding back his reserves to plug any potential breech, Gerasimov had deployed them aggressively in front of the lines, while launching new attacks on the eastern front.
Furthermore, Gerasimov committed the overwhelming majority of his landmines to the first line of defense, in front of Robotyne, at quadruple the density that Russian doctrine required.
That ridiculous minefield vexed the Ukrainian attack for months, but that temporary Russian success was therefore achieved by cannibalizing resources that would ordinarily have been committed to the second, third and fourth lines. Given that Ukraine successfully breached the second line barely two weeks after liberating Robotyne, Russia’s minefields in front of that line were nowhere near as formidable as those north of Robotyne.
Furthermore, Russia’s repeated counterattacks against every Ukrainian advance has bled it of its operational reserves, leaving them little to respond with after the first line was breached. As a result, Gerasimov was forced to respond by stripping units from the eastern front.
Perhaps due to Russia’s lack of reserves on the eastern front, Ukraine has intensified its attacks south of Bakhmut, and launched a new offensive around Avdiivka, just outside of the Russian-occupied regional capital of Donetsk.
Not that these shifted reserves are gaining Russia much, as Gerasimov is once again using them in a series of furious but futile counterattacks to try and recapture Robotyne and the plug the second-line breach near Verbove.
gerasimov’s repeating pattern of mistakes
It is not unfair to describe Gerasimov’s performance as “abysmal.”
Each step of the conflict, Gerasmov has consistently and significantly overestimated Russian military capabilities and underestimated Ukraine’s. The Battle of Kyiv, The Battle of Donbas of summer 2022, the Vuhledar Offensive—each were emblematic of Russian misreading of its strength relative to Ukraine.
While hardly perfect, Surovikin seemed to acknowledge Russian weaknesses and Ukrainian strengths. Ukraine’s difficulties advancing south are, in large part, Surovikin’s legacy. We didn’t see Gerasimov dig any similar defenses in Kherson or Kharkiv before the Ukrainian counteroffensives.
Reappointing Gerasimov, despite his obvious failures, reversed a moment of Russian competence, nowhere more apparently than in Gerasimov’s seeming all-out efforts to stop Ukraine at the first line of defense. With the first defensive line breached and Russia nearly out of operational reserves, Gerasimov is left reacting to the crisis of his own making (just like last year), allowing Ukraine to seize the initiative and leaving him with fewer and fewer strategic options.
Gerasimov may personify “If you do not know your enemies or yourself, you will be imperiled in every battle.”
You can read more great Ukraine coverage by both staff and community members here.