How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
Christmas Day will be a grim milestone for the Ukrainian people. It will mark almost exactly ten months since Russian forces crossed into their country, bringing devastation on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been killed. Millions have fled their homes. Most of the state has lost power, leading Kyiv to worry that—as winter sets in—many of its citizens will freeze.
But Christmas will also be a grim marker for Russia. Moscow planned for a short, victorious campaign. Ukraine has instead dealt it a bitter lesson on modern warfighting and national resilience. The Ukrainians have steadily degraded Russia’s military capacity by damaging its forces on the battlefield and in support areas. They have undermined Russia’s reputation both around the globe and in the minds of Russia’s own soldiers, commanders, and citizens. The Ukrainians eschew methodical battles with high attrition where possible, but they engage in close combat when they have opportunities to gain ground. It has all been to great effect. Ukraine pushed Russia away from Kyiv, took back the northeast province of Kharkiv, and liberated parts of the Donbas. Most recently, it freed Kherson, the only provincial capital that Russia has succeeded in capturing.
It is too soon, however, to count Russia out. Russian President Vladimir Putin has appointed a new military commander, General Sergei Surovikin, to lead the invasion, and Surovikin appears more brutal and capable than his predecessors. In one of his first acts, he launched the vigorous and horrific aerial campaign that has destroyed much of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure—a civilian-centered tactic he honed while leading Russian forces in Syria. Surovikin was responsible for Russia’s retreat from Kherson, but unlike when Russia withdrew from near Kyiv or Kharkiv, Surovikin saw to it that this retreat was well organized and well conducted.
Surovikin’s arrival heralds another adaptation of Russian strategy in Ukraine. Although Putin might realize he will not be able to take Kyiv, Russia’s president may still believe he can seize all of the four provinces he recently (and illegally) annexed—Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia. Surovikin is a critical implementer of these plans. Putin hopes that, as the war drags on and winter comes, Europe will stop providing Ukraine with large amounts of assistance so that the continent can try to restore imports of Russian gas. He believes that this potential diminishment of support will pave the way for a new, successful Russian offensive. To carry out such an offensive, he is counting on Surovikin to reorganize the military so that it operates in a smoother, more consistent, and more effective fashion.
It will be difficult for Surovikin to succeed, given the Russian military’s many problems, such as its deteriorating equipment and low morale. But Surovikin is working to unify the military under his command. He is almost certainly drawing up battle plans that are clearly focused, unlike past assaults that spread Russia’s troops thin. If Kyiv wants to keep the upper hand, it will need to anticipate Surovikin’s strategy while maintaining Western support—and that means continuing to innovate on the battlefield.
For people who have followed the war, much of what Russia has in store for 2023 will sound familiar. Moscow, for example, will continue to use propaganda about NATO aggression to try to keep China, India, and other currently neutral states from participating in Western sanctions. It will also use misinformation and disinformation to ensure that Russia’s own population continues to support the conflict. Keeping Russians in line will prove especially important when Moscow inevitably conducts additional military drafts. Even dictators must pay attention to domestic politics.
Similarly, Putin will sustain his energy warfare. He will keep depriving Europe of gas in hopes that the continent will force Kyiv to agree to a cease-fire as temperatures drop. He will also encourage more attacks on Ukraine’s energy supplies. In Putin’s calculus, Russian strikes on Ukrainian power stations will not only freeze the country’s people but also cost Ukraine external assistance; foreign investors, after all, are unlikely to return to the country when there is unreliable power. Even if the attacks do not keep out investors, they will still prove economically costly for Kyiv by stopping the Ukrainian power exports that began in July 2022.
Yet other elements of Russia’s strategy will be new—and Surovikin is playing a critical role in the changes. The general appears to be the first military leader that Putin clearly supports, and—according to a recent speech by U.S. National Intelligence Director Avril Haines—the Russian president is now better informed about the armed forces’ day-to-day operations. If Putin is confident that he is being better informed than he was before October, he is more likely to turn his attention to the many other challenges that Russia currently faces, giving Surovikin greater autonomy in using Russia’s broad array of forces within Ukraine. Surovikin could use this relative freedom of action to bring Russia’s fractured military and mercenary groups under a more unified control. He is certain to use it to better integrate Russia’s air and land operations and to ensure that there’s a better alignment between his country’s battlefield activities and information operations.
Consolidation will not, by itself, make Russia’s troops truly combat ready. Surovikin commands an army that suffers from low morale and keeps losing its people and best equipment. So far, evidence suggests that the troops Russia has mobilized to replace the dead and injured are not receiving the kind of demanding training they need to succeed. During the winter, at least, Surovikin will be on the defensive, doing whatever he can to preserve his force in the face of ongoing Ukrainian attacks.
Surovikin appears to be the first military leader that Putin clearly supports.
But he will begin to prepare Russia’s troops for new operations. Surovikin will, for example, work to reconstitute battered units by deploying tens of thousands of newly mobilized troops to Ukraine. If (and, almost certainly, when) these troops prove to be of poor quality, he may work to improve training back in Russia. He will try to take advantage of Russia’s ongoing industrial mobilization to acquire more and better weapons. He will also set up systems to safeguard key supply routes, build a more resilient logistics network, and stockpile munitions and supplies for future offensive operations.
Surovikin is likely to be more meticulous in planning and executing attacks. He will seek to ensure that Russia’s forces are aligned on the battlefield and to improve his country’s tactics, with the goal of avoiding the often piecemeal and uncoordinated approaches of his predecessors. And the general will keep working to make it harder for Ukraine to advance. Surovikin, for instance, will sustain his campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure, a tactic that diverts both Ukrainian and Western resources away from Kyiv’s offensive operations. (The strikes also provide propaganda for Russia’s domestic audience, ghoulish as that may seem.) Such strikes have little downside for Russia; they are an asymmetric advantage. As the historian Lawrence Freedman recently noted, Ukraine does not have the capacity to similarly destroy infrastructure within Russia—Ukrainian strikes on Russian air bases notwithstanding. “The Ukrainians are winning on the battlefield,” he wrote, “but they cannot hit back against the Russians on that strategic level.”
Surovikin will likely look to carry out more “economy of force” missions: military activities in which one party attempts to deceive its enemy in ways that force it to expend large numbers of soldiers on unproductive tasks. Russia, for example, has placed small contingents of soldiers in Belarus in order to force Ukraine to keep larger contingents around Kyiv, depriving the Ukrainian military of troops it could use elsewhere. Surovikin will likely conduct more such activities to give his military a better chance of success as he plans his next steps. Unless Russia is thoroughly routed, Surovikin will want to begin offensive ground operations that, if completed, would give Russia all or most of the provinces Putin has annexed.
The general, of course, knows that Ukraine could again try to retake lost territory. As a result, he is already ordering the military to construct more defensive positions across the territory Russia controls. Surovikin is also likely to conduct political activities to “Russify” the parts of Ukraine that Russia occupies. This process will resemble what Russia did in Kherson: moving the local economy off the Ukrainian hryvnia and onto the ruble, changing the school curriculum, and the repulsive practice of stealing Ukrainian children and sending them to Russia for adoption. Whether these will be more effective going forward than it was in Kherson remains to be seen.
Right now, the Ukrainian military still has the advantage. Unlike at the start of the war, Ukrainian leaders are the ones who decide where and when battles are fought. They get to determine how battlefield campaigns are executed. They have the momentum, and they do not want to relinquish it. But that does not mean Ukraine will have the initiative indefinitely. To stay on top, the Ukrainians need to understand and then undermine Putin and Surovikin’s plans.
First, that means Kyiv must continue to counter Russia’s information warfare. Moscow is working to convince Europeans that their rising heating bills are caused by their countries’ support for Ukraine, hoping that it can persuade these states that the cost is not worth it. It is also trying to undermine Washington’s support by fueling the United States’ partisan divisions. If the Kremlin succeeds in pushing NATO states away from backing Kyiv, it could prove devastating: for Ukraine, military and economic support from the United States and Europe has been essential to battlefield success.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his clever team are working on messages aimed at maintaining the international community’s sympathy. But they also need to keep the war on the front page of Western newspapers and at the forefront of the West’s thinking. And the best way to accomplish that is to do what Ukraine has been doing for the past six months: winning. The more victories that Kyiv can point to, the more funding and weapons it is likely to receive from the West (rather than calls to negotiate).
Kyiv can defeat even a revitalized Russian military.
But to keep succeeding, Ukraine’s military strategy will need to evolve. It will have to anticipate and defeat Surovikin’s battlefield actions. To do so, the country is likely to intensify its surveillance of Russia’s front lines, logistics hubs, and command hubs, which can help identify weaknesses it can exploit. Ukraine must also broaden its program of sending soldiers and junior military leaders to Europe for more intensive training, making its already superior troops even better than Russia’s mobilized ones. And Ukraine will need to continue to finding ways to degrade Russian capacities that help enable the invasion, including Russian logistics, transport, and command hubs. Ukraine recently attacked two Russian air bases over 400 miles from Ukraine—strikes that it will likely want to replicate. Such deep attacks affect the Russians psychologically, impact Putin’s domestic political standing, and force Russia into a strategic dilemma about how to weigh its military effort in Ukraine against defending home bases.
In executing these steps, Ukrainian leaders and planners can help prevent a more energetic, integrated, and imaginative Russian military from emerging. And if Ukraine can continue to win on the battlefield, Kyiv might try to isolate and possibly even seize all of the Donbas and Crimea. Retaking both areas is a stated goal of the Ukrainian government. But successfully moving into these territories will prove highly challenging. Taking Crimea would be particularly tricky, requiring that Ukraine carry out new kinds of naval operations to stop Russia’s powerful Black Sea Fleet from hitting Ukrainian troops as they cross into the peninsula. The Ukrainians would have to simultaneously coordinate amphibious, airborne, ground, and other operations. This task, although not insurmountable, is difficult. And some Western governments might view a campaign for Crimea as beyond the purview of what they promised to support—even though the peninsula legally remains part of Ukraine and Zelensky has continually telegraphed his intention to take it back.
But there is a long way to go before Ukraine reaches the point where it can invade Crimea. Right now, it has more immediate crises and challenges. The country, for instance, needs to find ways to quickly reconstruct and harden its power and heating network in the face of ongoing Russian attacks, including by getting more Western assistance. (The U.S. State Department’s promise to send more than $53 million in energy equipment will help.) Kyiv will also need to carefully consider how it should sequence and prioritize its 2023 ground, air, and information operations, similar to the way it orchestrated its counteroffensives over the last several months to force Russia into simultaneously fighting in the north, the east, and the south.
Thankfully, there are plenty of reasons to think that Kyiv can defeat even a revitalized Russian military. Ukraine’s international influence campaigns have been a model for other democracies to study and emulate. The Ukrainians have proven superior to the Russians at adapting and updating their tactics and military institutions. And they have far better morale. War holds no certainties, regardless of previous victories. But if Ukraine can maintain Western support, it can prove that Putin’s new theory of victory is just as misguided as was his last.