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Russo-Ukraine War - January 2023

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On 24 February 2022, Ukraine was suddenly and deliberately attacked by land, naval and air forces of Russia, igniting the largest European war since the Great Patriotic War. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a "special military operation" (SVO - spetsialnaya voennaya operatsiya) in Ukraine in response to the appeal of the leaders of the "Donbass republics" for help. That attack is a blatant violation of the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. Putin stressed that Moscow's goal is the demilitarization and denazification of the country. The military buildup in preceeding months makes it obvious that the unprovoked and dastardly Russian attack was deliberately planned long in advance. During the intervening time, the Russian government had deliberately sought to deceive the world by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

"To initiate a war of aggression... is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole." [Judgment of the International Military Tribunal]


In January 2023 Russia launched attacks along 500-km eastern front as the battle for Donbas began. After the failure to win the main prize of Kyiv, Russia repositioned and reinforced its troops in the east. The spring offensives could have a deceive impact on the course of this war. Russia had waited until its new 150.000 soldiers [half the number called to the colors] finished preliminary training, while Ukraine awaited further Western arms support. Over time, Russia's strength delined, as first line trained troops perished, and were relaced by unwilling conscripts. And over time, Ukraine' strength increased, as it received all kinds of essential weapon systems, both offensive and defensive.

The goals of both sides were irreconcilable, rendering a negotiated peace deal impossible at the moment. So only a military defeat or political change in either one of the countries could bring an end to the conflict. A Ukrainian offensive towards Berdiansk and Melitopol would cut off crucial Russian supply lines towards Crimea and put high pressure on the Russian military. However, Russia already anticipated this attack and prepared defensive lines to counter such an offensive.

The Russian offensive that began in late January 2023 was intended, in part, to force Ukraine to commit reserves, making it much harder to mount a counter-offensive. By Marach 2023, Russian soldiers and mercenaries advanced deeper into Bakhmut, the town in Donetsk province that has been under Russian assault since last summer. But the battle for the town had resulted in far greater Russian losses than Ukrainian ones. And more importantly General Zaluzhny had avoided the obvious trap over over-commitment.

By December 2022 leaders in America and Britain seem to have concluded that a protracted war was not in the Wests interests. Russia, moreover, was even weaker than previously thought. The turning-point came on 20 January 2023 at the eighth meeting of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group, the American-led meeting of defence ministers held roughly monthly at the big American air base at Ramstein in Germany. There, allies agreed to equip Ukraine with more than a divisions worth of kit, with the aim of having much of it in place by the end of March. The flow of arms accordingly turned from a trickle to a flood. Of all the military aid pledged by the Pentagon since the war began, 40% over $8bn had come in the three months since the previous Ramstein meeting 09 December. One European defence official said the infusion of arms agreed in Germany in January alone amounted to two-thirds of the total sent to Ukraine in all of 2022.

On 11 January 2023 Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu appointed Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov as commander of the combined forces group for Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. Announcing the appointment, the defence ministry said the changes were designed to increase the effectiveness of managing military operations in Ukraine, more than 10 months into a campaign Moscow still refers to as a "special military operation".

Gerasimov, like Shoigu, had faced sharp criticism from pro-war military bloggers for Russia's multiple setbacks on the battlefield. Some observers believe that Gerasimov demonstrated his incompetence in the very first days of the war. Together with Defense Minister Shoigu, he made a series of disastrous decisions when planning the invasion, especially in the north of Ukraine.

Different factions in the Russian security apparatus were competing for power. On one side are Shoigu and Gerasimov, supported by more moderate forces. Sergey Surovikin, meanwhile, is especially popular with hard-liners and can even be considered one himself, along with Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led the notorious Wagner mercenary group. Putin maintained a balance of political power between the various forces. He plays them off against each other, keeps them under observation, and makes sure none of them get too strong.

Three top-ranking officers of Russia's army and Aerospace Forces were named deputies under Gerasimov's command. Russia had promoted Sergey Surovikin, nicknamed "General Armageddon" for his reputed ruthlessness, to be its top battlefield commander only last October following a series of Ukrainian counter-offensives that turned the tide of the conflict. Surovikin will remain as a deputy of Gerasimov, the defence ministry said.

All Russian forces will be deeply involved in the operation in Ukraine, and the military reshuffle likely meant a large-scale offensive against the country is imminent. From a strictly military point of view, the reshuffle was “Confirmation, if we needed it, that there will be serious offensives coming, and that even Putin recognises that poor coordination has been an issue,” Russia security analyst Mark Galeotti wrote. The change was necessary both to improve Russian command and control and to intensify the country's operations in Ukraine. Gerasimov's appointment was partly aimed at signaling President Vladimir Putin's intent to fight a long war in Ukraine.

According to some reports, Valery Gerasimov, the man now in charge of troubleshooting the dragging conflict, objected to the war before it began. "Gerasimov didn't plan and categorically rejected [the war]," said Anatoly Lopata, who served as Ukraine's deputy defence minister and chief of the General Staff in the 1990s. Gerasimov's alleged resistance contradicted the opinion of his boss, defence minister Sergei Shoigu, who was among a tiny circle of top officials who planned the invasion that caught most of the Kremlin by surprise.

The army's standing in Moscow had been seriously eroded by a string of setbacks in Ukraine, culminating with the deadly – and humiliating – New Year missile strike on a Russian barracks in Makiivka, which exposed the military command's carelessness and incompetence. In contrast, Prigozhin and his mercenaries have been flexing their muscles in the gruesome battle for Soledar. The Wagner Group has already won a PR battle, cementing the perception in Moscow that Prigozhin's militiamen are at the forefront of Russia's only territorial advance in several months.

This is not the first restructuring of the Russian chain of command since the start of the invasion, but the timing is surprising, as Russia is making small military advances for the first time in months. Military experts are divided over the reasoning behind it. They say that Surovikin has not actually committed any blunders during his time as commander-in-chief in Ukraine. He is also said to be reasonably popular with the troops, and to be on good terms with political hard-liners.

Under Surovikin's leadership, the Russian army pulled out of the Ukrainian city of Kherson. Following Russia's declaration that it had annexed the entire Kherson region, the withdrawal from the only regional capital its troops have captured to date was seen as a political humiliation for the Kremlin. However, experts say it was the right decision from the military's point of view, as it was no longer possible to hold Russian positions on the west bank of the Dnipro river.

Given the context, one plausible reading of Gerasimov's appointment was "to see it as a warning addressed by Putin to Prigozhin, so he doesn't think he can do whatever he likes", argues Stephen Hall, a Russia specialist at the University of Bath. As one of Shoigu's closest collaborators, the new commander in chief “is likely to allow the Wagner Group much less freedom than his processor Surovikin, who is considered ideologically closer to Prigozhin", adds the Kremlin watcher. The reshuffle also eased some of the pressure on Shoigu, explains Hall: "He will no longer have to deal constantly with Surovikin, who spent much of his time trying to stab him in the back."

The mandate came with a poisoned chalice for Putin's Chief of the General Staff, whose latest promotion could turn out to be his last. The chief of the general staff would be expected to bolster the army's sagging war effort while contending with the Wagner Group's growing influence "a tall order that led some analysts to suspect he was set up to fail. "From now on, he's in the firing line and can no longer blame others should the situation further deteriorate in Ukraine," explained Jeff Hawn, a specialist on the Russian military and consultant for the American geopolitical research centre New Lines Institute. ed . "He is put in a situation to fail, which would give Putin an excuse to get rid of him and thereby please the far-right camp."

Many separatists had been highly sceptical of Gerasimov. "I am in a sacred awe awaiting the new outstanding victories that will be achieved by this widely recognised military genius," Igor Strelkov, a former "defence minister" of separatists in Donetsk wrote sarcastically on Telegram. And many in Ukraine, where resistance and hope remain strong, agree that the new commander will fail to stop Russia from losing the war.

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Page last modified: 22-04-2023 18:02:50 ZULU