Operational / Strategic Military
- On 11 January 2023, the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that Chief of the General Staff (CGS) Army General Valery Gerasimov would take over from Army General Sergei Surovikin as theatre commander in Ukraine as part of a reorganisation of the Russian military command structure for the ongoing war.
- Surovikin will now serve alongside Army General Oleg Salyukov and Colonel General Alexei Kim as Gerasimov’s deputies.
Ukrainian media report regarding the change in Russian commanders. Source: @pravda_eng
- The Belarusian Armed Forces (BAF) continued to conduct joint training exercises alongside the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF), including air defence exercises on 11 January 2023. Belarus also continued to conduct readiness checks among various BAF units, as well as holding award ceremonies.
- Belarusian Military Monitoring Team, Belarusian Hajun reported the departure of a Russian echelon of about 30 various trucks and presumably Russian mobilised service members to Voronezh Oblast in the Russian Federation on 7 January 2023. However, the same reporting source, which monitors Belarusian and RFAF movements in Belarus, also stated that another echelon of RFAF arrived from Russia the same day.
Update from the Belarusian Hajun Project regarding BAF and RFAF movements in Belarus. Source: @MotolkoHelp
- It is likely that the change-in-command was arranged by Putin to reassert the dominance of the Russian MoD in the public’s perception, as well as reduce the influence of external actors such as Prigozhin (head of Wagner PMC) and Kadyrov (Head of the Chechen Republic).
- Surovikin, who is probably the most popular Russian commander among the mil-blogger information space, and with Prigozhin and Kadyrov, has been replaced after only three months – having assumed command of the operation in Ukraine in October 2022. Surovikin is likely to have been responsible for ordering the deliberate targeting of Ukrainian electrical infrastructure (popular with the Russian nationalist/mil-blogger community) as well as the consolidation of Russian defensive positions.
- It is likely the Russian MoD formally announced these changes to try to fix the convoluted chain-of-command and improve command and control. It will also be an attempt to reassert MoD control over the conduct of the war, while attempting to move away from the perceived failures of the MoD earlier in the war. It is a realistic possibility Gerasimov’s appointment will lead to a new planning cycle for the RFAF which may precipitate another large-scale offensive come spring.
- It is a realistic possibility that the appointment of Gerasimov is a signal to the anti-MoD Russian nationalist mil-blogger sphere, as well as Prigozhin and Kadyrov, that they will no longer be allowed such latitude in their criticism of the Russian MoD and its actions.
- Repeated changes in senior MoD leadership since the start of the invasion in February 2022 are indicative of issues among commanders and Putin’s perception of how the war is being fought. Armies that are winning do not frequently change their operational commanders.
- Despite ongoing joint RFAF-BAF exercises, the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine from Belarus is low, but possible, and the risk of Belarusian direct involvement is very low. Whilst RFAF and BAF units continue to conduct joint training serials at unidentified training grounds in Belarus, there has been no reporting to indicate the formation of combined-arms groupings (such as Battalion Tactical Groups or larger Brigade/Regimental groups) which would be required for an offensive into Ukraine. This training is likely to be designed to prepare mobilised Russian soldiers for deployment to eastern Ukraine whilst presenting a good opportunity to increase the perceived threat from Belarus.
- Poland has agreed to supply the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) with a company (14) of Leopard 2 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), possibly the first of several transfers. However, some reporting indicates the German-produced tanks cannot be released until approved by the German government – which has said it is looking to “transatlantic partners” to take the lead. This implies that Germany will not allow the tanks to be transferred until the United States (US) provides M1 Abrams MBTs to Ukraine.
- Reporting since 9 January 2023 has stated that United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister (PM) Rishi Sunak is pressing the British MoD to do more to support Ukraine, including possibly providing a low number of Challenger 2 MBTs. There is some hope in Ukrainian circles that this will encourage the German PM, Olaf Schultz to release the Leopard 2’s.
Bloomberg reporting of Britain’s intent to supply Ukraine with Challenger 2 MBTs. Source: @business
- It is a realistic possibility that the UK will provide Ukraine with Challenger 2 MBTs in the next six months. It is possible that the downsizing and reorganisation of the British Army may release up to approximately 50 Challenger 2 (almost a regiment’s worth); however, the initial tranche is likely to consist of only a handful (up to 10).
- Whilst a potent machine, the small numbers of Challenger 2 available are unlikely to make a significant impact on the ground even if they are delivered. The Challenger 2 also uses a 120mm rifled main gun, meaning it cannot fire NATO-standard 120mm ammunition (as used by the Abrams, LeClerc and Leopard 2), thus increasing the logistic and support burden on the UAF.
- Rather than have a significant battlefield impact, the UK is likely hoping that the provision of Challenger 2 will pave the way and encourage other NATO nations to contribute modern MBTs to Ukraine. It is unlikely that the UK’s actions will sway the German government, who are looking to the US for leadership and direction on future iterations of military aid to Ukraine.
- Provision of Abrams from the US may precipitate German concessions; however, the Abrams itself has a fuel-thirsty gas turbine engine with different maintenance and repair requirements which, like the British Challenger 2, are likely to add disproportionately to the logistics burden.
- The planned formation of two new UAF Corps is a challenging undertaking – two Corps of Mechanised/Armoured infantry would likely require a brigade of MBT each in support. This realistically means that approximately 300 MBTs would need to be supplied. To reduce logistic complications, all theoretical NATO-provided MBTs would need to be standardised - the Leopard 2 would be a good choice with multiple Western users and thus potential donors. It is unlikely that the West will provide 300 NATO standard MBTs in the short to medium term (3-6 months), due to cost, supply issues and political interference; however, smaller numbers may start to enter the theatre. Without mass, dislodging determined defenders will prove very challenging for future UAF offensive operations.
It is highly likely that Russian nationalist mil-bloggers will criticises the Kremlin’s appointment of Gerasimov as overall commander of the ‘Special Military Operation’, and they will likely cite failures in command during the initial months of the invasion. It is likely that Putin will allow Gerasimov several months to organise and conduct a major operation (possibly to push Russian control to cover all of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts) with freshly trained mobilised troops. If this future operation fails, or there is another major military defeat for the RFAF, Gerasimov’s tenure may well be cut short by Putin. By making Gerasimov theatre commander supported by three experienced deputies, it is likely that Putin intends to further shield himself from criticism over the conduct of the operation. It is currently unknown how this move will affect political favours and public statements/opinions of outsiders like Prigozhin and Kadyrov, although their feelings are likely to be public within the next seven days. It is almost certain that the announcement of a new theatre commander will not drastically alter the military/tactical situation for the RFAF within the next month, and it is unlikely that another axis or concentrated offensive (outside Donetsk) will occur.
It is a highly likely that Belarus will continue to host Russian forces and conduct snap drills in the short term, without making any attempt to invade Ukraine. It is highly unlikely that the Belarusian military will conduct kinetic activity against Ukraine or any NATO members; however, it is highly likely Lukashenko will retain his belligerent rhetoric against Ukraine and NATO to appease the Kremlin. It is a realistic possibility that senior Russian military and political figures will visit Belarus in the immediate and short term (next 1-4 weeks) to cement the perception that Ukraine should be worried about an invasion, and to cement the ‘Union State’ between the two countries. Training of newly mobilised RFAF conscripts is highly likely to continue in the short to medium term, with a likely increase in scale and visibility should Russia conduct another large-scale round of mobilization.
It is unlikely that NATO member states will provide MBTs to Ukraine in the short term. Training and maintenance requirements to effectively use Western (non-Soviet designed) MBTs will highly likely take months, even if a deal is agreed. It is likely that the German government will concede in the medium term (as it did with Marder infantry fighting vehicles and PzH 2000 self-propelled artillery) and allow the provision of German-made MBTs to Ukraine. It is highly likely that Ukrainian politicians will continue to beseech the West for greater quantities of advanced equipment and associated capabilities.
Military activity of the Ukrainian army in the Donetsk region