The orderly withdrawal is considered a particularly sensitive military operation. Quite a few experts and observers therefore assumed that giving up the city of Cherson would hardly be possible without major losses for the Russian troops, who had repeatedly suffered under the miserable leadership of their commanders.
After all, the troops had to cross the Dnieper River and sometimes operated within range of the Ukrainian Himars missile systems.
The fact that things turned out differently is probably mainly due to Sergei Surovikin. The new Russian commander had been deployed four weeks earlier after the Crimean bridge exploded and was supposed to stabilize the desolate situation at the front for Russia.
“Surovikin seems to be more capable than its predecessors, because the withdrawal was much more orderly than in Kharkiv in September,” said ex-Australian general Mick Ryan in an interview with the daily mirror. For Ukraine, this is an important finding with a view to future military operations.
Ryan has now written a detailed analysis of how Surovikin could change the course of the war in the coming months.
In all likelihood, Putin will not be satisfied with orderly deductions in the future. What Surovikin needs to show in the medium term in order to please the president are successes on the offensive, coupled with the defense of the territories he has conquered so far. Can this work? And conversely: What does Ukraine need to pay more attention to in the future?
1. Russia’s air force is not (yet) a threat
Since the beginning of the war of aggression, Russia has not succeeded in gaining air supremacy in Ukraine and thus playing off the numerical superiority of its air fleet. The reason is Ukraine’s air defense systems, which are still active thanks to western arms deliveries.
In a recent report, however, the renowned Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) warns of the consequences if supplies from the West should decrease. “Unless the Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems are replenished with new ammunition and supplemented and replaced with equivalent western systems over time, the Russian air force will again pose a greater threat,” it said.
For Surovkin a possible strategic military starting point, believes ex-General Ryan. The fact that the Russian commander has been responsible for the Russian Air Force since 2017 “may have given him a better understanding of their deployment than most other commanders in the country”.
Should Russia actually be able to launch its warplanes at a higher frequency, the impact on the war would be massive. Ground operations could be better prepared, for example, by targeting Ukrainian supply routes and surveillance systems.
2. Rapid, concentrated troop movements
The front line in Ukraine stretches over almost 1,000 kilometers. Large sections are therefore only sparsely secured by soldiers. The consequence: offensive success can be achieved above all by the warring party, which can gather troops in one place quickly and as unnoticed as possible.
Ukraine has done much better so far. The major gains in territory of the last two offensives can be explained primarily by the fact that the Russian troops could not be repositioned quickly enough.
In order to be able to go on the offensive itself, Ryan analyses, Russia must translate its numerical superiority into coordinated and concentrated attacks. Both the poor tactical training of the new recruits and their inadequate equipment would make such a project difficult. But an expansion of mobilization and the Russian war economy could open up new options for Surovik in the medium term. A stronger presence of the Russian Air Force would also help here.
“With its dense reconnaissance network, Ukraine has so far been able to detect and attack troop deployments at long range. The time from localization to destruction in Ukraine is around three to five minutes, especially for relevant targets such as logistics hubs, command posts and troop concentrations,” writes General Ryan in his analysis. Establishing supremacy in the air is therefore essential for the Surovkin in order to fill gaps in Ukrainian reconnaissance.
3. Russia lacks officers
In addition to all this, the Russian army is particularly concerned about the high casualties among its officers. The Topcargo200 website provides an indication of how many commanders died as a result of Ukrainian attacks.
477 military officers of higher rank have died since the beginning of the invasion. Although this is not official information, Western secret services also regularly reported on the high losses in the Russian officer corps.
As a result, the individual Russian armed forces have often acted in an uncoordinated manner. “There is room for improvement, especially in the conduct of air-to-land operations,” says military expert Ryan. Over the winter, Russia’s new commander will probably do everything in his power to promote the training of new officers.
And the Australian ex-general also expects personnel changes at higher military levels. “Surovikin will want to ensure that its military leaders are capable of effectively conducting Russian operations in 2023,” Ryan believes.
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