Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian critical infrastructure are a step-change in the war and in Russian strategy. Russia has become more dangerous, not because it is cornered but because it is more disciplined: Political demands and military realities are being harmonized at the level of strategy.
Russia can operate within the escalatory window the West has offered it. The U.S. should respond by shifting Russia’s risk calculations to safeguard critical infrastructure within Ukraine.
Sergey Surovikin, Russia’s new commander in Ukraine, has no unique talents that differentiate him from his predecessor, Aleksandr Dvornikov. The two men are remarkably similar; both deployed to Syria and were notorious for their brutality and disregard for civilian casualties, and both have experience as military district commanders. Yet Surovikin, from his first weeks in command, has been notably more honest with the Russian public, admitting that the military situation is “tense.”
Surovikin’s background explains his increased candor. He is not only a career officer but a Soviet officer who served as a Spetsnaz commando in Afghanistan and actively participated in the 1991 coup attempt; he helped create the Russian military police. Both indicate his loyalty to the Kremlin, as does his ruthlessness in Syria and to his subordinates. (A colonel under his command reportedly committed suicide in front of him.) He is a former service chief, previously the head of Russia’s Aerospace Forces, despite his background as a land officer. Some observers have speculated that he might replace Valery Gerasimov as the Russian military’s chief of general staff.
Moreover, given Russia’s increasing reliance on Iranian equipment and technical assistance, Surovikin’s relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, cultivated during his Syria deployment, is an added benefit.
Surovikin, nevertheless, must square an increasingly rigid circle. Russia remains on the back foot. Ukraine presses it in the east and south, relentlessly pushing in Kherson and in the Donbas region; it maintains forces in Zaporizhzhia Oblast as well, and could very well threaten Melitopol. The Kerch Strait Bridge attack, meanwhile, demonstrates that Ukraine can hit the crucial logistical route for Russian forces in southern Ukraine.
The logical military choice for Russia would be to shorten the battlefront. This would reduce stress on Russia’s logistics, concentrate poorly-trained and ill-equipped but numerous Russian reservists on a shorter line, increase the density of air defenses, and ensure that Russia’s artillery, so critical to its tactical success, is overwhelming enough to hold new positions.
The issue, however, is partly political. Putin has annexed Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk from Ukraine, intentionally preventing any Russian military leader from surrendering these areas during negotiation and implicitly raising the credibility of Russian nuclear threats. Yet in his acrimonious Sept. 30 speech announcing these annexations, Putin never identified the borders or administrative nature of any of the annexed regions.
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