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Russian General Sergei Surovikin is no stranger to mass murder and spreading terror.
In Chechnya, the shaven-headed veteran officer, who has the physique of a wrestler and an expression to match, has vowed to “destroy three Chechen fighters for every Russian soldier killed”. And he is bitterly remembered in northern Syria for reducing much of the city of Aleppo to rubble.
The 56-year-old air force general also oversaw the relentless targeting of clinics, hospitals and civilian infrastructure in the rebel-held Idlib region in 2019, an effort to break the will opponents and sending refugees to flee to Europe via neighboring Turkey. The 11-month campaign “showed complete disregard for the lives of the estimated 3 million civilians in the region,” Human Rights Watch noted in a scathing report.
Now he is repeating his Syrian playbook in Ukraine.
Two weeks ago, Vladimir Putin appointed Surovikin as overall commander of Russia’s so-called “special military operation”, much to the delight of Moscow hawks. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov praised Surovikin as “a true general and a warrior”. It will “improve the situation,” Kadyrov added in a social media post.
But reversing a string of stunning Ukrainian battlefield victories and turning the tide of the war may be beyond even the ruthless Surovikin. The Ukrainians have shown throughout the year that they are made for tough stuff and will not be intimidated by war crimes – and they have already suffered shelling and shelling from Russian generals just as little scrupulous.
But military officials and Western analysts note that there are already signs of more tactical consistency than was seen under his predecessor, General Alexander Dvornikov. “His tactics of war totally break the rules of war, but unfortunately they have proven effective in Syria,” a senior British military intelligence officer told POLITICO. “As a war strategist, he has a record of effectiveness – as vicious as he is,” the officer added.
Surovikin and other officials point to the targeting of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure with a massive wave of attacks last week. Weekend strikes have led to power cuts across the country, leaving more than a million homes without electricity, Deputy Head of Ukraine’s Presidency Kyrylo Tymoshenko said on Saturday.
“These are vile strikes on critical objects,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. “The world can and must stop this terror,” he said. “The geography of this latest mass strike is very broad,” Zelenskyy added. “Of course, we don’t have the technical capability to shoot down 100% of Russian missiles and drones. I am sure that, little by little, we will get there, with the help of our partners. Already now, we are shooting down a majority of cruise missiles, a majority of drones.
However, intercepting the majority of what is fired by the Russians at Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is not enough to stop the disruption Surovikin is trying to cause with the strikes. The scale of damage to Ukraine’s electricity system over the weekend exceeded what was inflicted in the first wave of strikes on energy infrastructure on October 10, according to a Telegram post from Ukrenergo, the network operator. audience.
About a third of the country’s power plants have been destroyed since the attacks began, according to Ukrainian authorities.
And for Russia, the cost of the air assault is cheap, because it relies on Iran’s Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicles, essentially flying bombs dubbed “kamikaze drones” because they are destroyed in the air. ‘impact.
The drones, which have a flight range of 2,500 kilometers, hover above a target until ordered to attack. With a wingspan of 2.5 metres, they can be difficult to identify on radar and only cost around €20,000 to manufacture, compared to, for example, cruise missiles costing up to €2 million to manufacture. produce.
Last week, the White House said Iranian drone experts — trainers and support technicians — had been deployed on the ground in Russia-annexed Crimea to help launch attacks on Ukraine. “Tehran is now directly engaged on the ground and through the supply of weapons that impact civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine,” national security spokesman John Kirby said.
But turning to Iran for help also demonstrates Russian weakness, according to a Pentagon adviser. The fact that they are using Iranian drones suggests that they are really out of missiles. “I don’t think their abilities are as good as they claim anyway. I always thought the Russians were a bit of a hollow force. They don’t have depth in range with abilities and they can’t really apply them very effectively. The fact that they are going to the Iranians for drone technology is a pretty sad statement about the once vaunted Russian military-industrial or Soviet military-industrial complex,” the adviser told POLITICO.
And while the drones help cause massive damage, their lightweight explosive payloads at 36kg pose a problem for the Russians – they are not powerful enough to cause “dismantling” damage to large power plants and are therefore rather intended to smaller substations. . Eventually, too, Western and Ukrainian experts will find ways to jam the GPS system the drones rely on to divert them from their target. Thus, they may have a short shelf life of effectiveness, Western officials say.
Not having sufficient depth in terms of capabilities is not the only problem facing Russian generals. One of the most debilitating problems for the Russians was the lack of small unit leadership and competent battlefield supervision.
Ukrainians since 2014 have been steeped in US military doctrine and training, which focuses on building a professional corps of corporals and sergeants who understand the big picture and are given delegated authority to take decisions on the battlefield as they lead their units, according to John Barranco, an Atlantic Council analyst who oversaw the initial operations of US Marines in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and served in Iraq.
The Russians’ failure to put together such a cadre has plagued them in Ukraine, and it’s not a shortcoming Surovikin has time to correct. In fact, the situation is likely to get worse, with the Kremlin now throwing into battle insufficiently trained conscripts from Putin’s partial mobilization order.
After only a few days of training, the conscripts are already dying. And the conscripts are sent to what is now the crucial front at this stage of the war – the southern port city of Kherson – where Russian authorities have ordered all residents to leave ahead of a final advance by Ukrainian troops.
The city of Kherson is the only regional capital that Russia has managed to conquer since the beginning of the invasion. It was a key award for establishing a land bridge between Crimea and southern Ukraine, as well as opening the way for a potential assault on the main Black Sea port of Odessa.
But a Ukrainian counter-offensive that began this summer is now descending on the city of Kherson. Russia’s tactical position in the region is highly compromised, with paratrooper units entrenched on the west bank of the Dnieper, where they are very vulnerable. “From a battlefield geometry perspective, this is a terrible position for the Russians,” Jack Watling, a land warfare expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, told POLITICO.
Watling, who conducted an operational analysis with the Ukrainian General Staff, says the Russians in the West Bank are some of their most capable troops, but cannot be reliably replenished “on the scale necessary to make them competitive” and that they won’t be able to counterattack.
“The Ukrainians have the initiative and can dictate the pace,” Watling said. “From a purely military point of view, the Russians would be much better off withdrawing from the city of Kherson and concentrating on holding the river. [from the east bank] then putting the bulk of their forces on the axis of Zaporizhzhia, but for political reasons they have been slow to do so and seem ready for delaying action.
This seems consistent with what the Ukrainian General Staff reported over the weekend. Russian troop movements occurred in the Kherson region, with some units preparing for urban combat, while others retreated.
In short, Surovikin is forced to attempt one of the most difficult military maneuvers – an orderly retreat to reposition forces, including poorly trained conscripts and units that lack cohesion. When more experienced Russian troops attempted the same move near Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine last month, they suffered a rout.
Violence alone will not save Russian conscripts from motivated and agile Ukrainian forces. Whether Surovikin has the tactical skills to navigate a dangerous retreat will be what matters.