Tuesday, October 3, 2023

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Russia’s Offensive is Make or Break for General Behind Putin’s Plan

General Valery Gerasimov is the longest-serving chief of Russia’s General Staff—the country’s most senior military official—of the post-Soviet era. Since 2012, Gerasimov has headed a military that many deemed the second most potent in the world.

The veil of competence was lifted after February 24, 2022, when Russian tanks again rolled into Ukraine. One year later, the Russian military is depleted and humiliated, though still capable of mass destruction of Ukrainian settlements and lives.

Since early January, Gerasimov—who Ukraine claimed was wounded in an artillery strike in April—has been in command of President Vladimir Putin’s gambit, the fourth general overseeing the Kremlin’s “special military operation” since it began.

Another failure will forever blot the 67-year-old’s legacy. Experts told Newsweek that even Putin’s most senior commander would struggle to salvage victory from a war characterized by systemic Russian failures that festered under his watch.

“Before the war started, he was probably going to be not necessarily retiring from the military, but retiring from the position of General Staff,” Mark Galeotti, the author of Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukrainetold Newsweek.

“He was already beginning to pick out the kinds of jobs that tend to be how an ex-chief of the General Staff rusticates and coasts the last couple of years towards formal retirement,” Galeotti said. “I can’t help but suspect that his main priority will be not to mess things up so badly that he ends up in disgrace.

“But at the same time,” Galeotti continued, “he’s facing pressure from Putin to actually win something. Putin would be delighted if Gerasimov could take the whole of the Donbas, but I don’t think he’s expecting that. But he does, I think, expect a few trophies: Bakhmut and maybe something else.”

Newsweek has contacted Russia’s Defense Ministry by email to request comment.

It’s difficult to see what Gerasimov can offer that Russia’s previous invasion commanders could not, even with his many years of experience. “They’ve used their supply of what they thought were silver bullets,” Mark Voyger, a former special adviser for Russian and Eurasian affairs to then-commander of US Army Europe General Ben Hodges, told Newsweek.

“I don’t know what construct he can propose to fix something that’s deeply flawed at the operational and tactical level,” Voyger—now a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Analysis and professor at the American University of Kyiv—added . “I don’t think he can conjure up anything that’s dramatically different that can turn the tide of the war.”

Russia evidently still has some capacity for offensive operations after a year of high casualties, rapid equipment attrition, and multiple retreats. Moscow’s troops are again pushing for new ground in the eastern Donetsk region around Bakhmut, while reportedly also preparing and launching new assaults along the southern front line near Zaporizhzhia and the northeastern front near Kreminna.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said last month that Russia has “strategically, operationally, and tactically” lost the war. Moscow’s troops are still fighting, though grand ambitions of Ukrainian regime change are now distant. The spring offensive appears to have begun, but even its regional goals of occupying Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts seem ambitious.

“The kind of feedback that we’re getting from Ukrainian generals, but also from Western defense analysts is that it was probably rushed, that it was launched before they were truly ready, before the mobilized reservists who are being brought in to bring units back up to strength probably had a chance to integrate with the new units,” Galeotti said of Gerasimov’s new assault.

“They’re going to have some armies operating under very, very demanding political constraints.”

Putin had to make a move to show Russia still could. Gerasimov has to make a move, Galeotti said, “to show that he was an offensive-minded general,” unlike General Sergey Surovikin who preceded him.

Surovikin—known as “General Armageddon” and “The Butcher of Syria” for brutality in suppressing rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—oversaw the retreat from Kherson in September, widely considered a successful Russian defensive operation.

“It’s clearly the case that Surovikin was removed because he wasn’t seen as sufficiently aggressive,” Galeotti said. “My view is, if Surovikin was not aggressive enough for you, then good god, what are you expecting?”

There has been much debate about the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine,” a term coined by Galeotti in 2014 based on a 2013 article published by Gerasimov in which observers suggested the Russian general had laid out a new approach to modern warfare.

The supposed doctrine proposed the heavy incorporation of hybrid methods to augment conventional warfare by destabilizing an opponent and obfuscating Russian military intentions.

Galeotti himself has since disavowed the concept, and scholars have suggested that Gerasimov’s famed 2013 article is better understood as an appeal to Russian theorists to help create a new military approach based on a Russian understanding of Western modern warfare as exhibited in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya , and elsewhere.

Gerasimov’s article is also thought to have been influenced by the Arab Spring and the pro-democratic “color revolutions” that Moscow has long claimed as products of Western covert action.

General Valery Gerasimov is the longest-serving chief of Russia’s General Staff—the country’s most senior military official—of the post-Soviet era. Since 2012, Gerasimov has headed a military that many deemed the second most potent in the world.

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