Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Russia Launches New Offensive in Ukraine
Russia Launches New Offensive in Ukraine

Russia Launches New Offensive in Ukraine

Russia launched a new offensive near Kharkiv, amidst continuing questions about Ukraine’s ability to mobilize enough manpower to blunt Russian advantages. FPRI President Aaron Stein sat down with Senior Fellow Rob Lee on May 13, 2024 to discuss the latest from the Russo-Ukrainian war. This transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Aaron Stein: I’m sitting down today with Rob Lee, a Senior Fellow in our Eurasia program to talk about the recent events going on in the Russo-Ukrainian War. For those who are not following on a day-to-day basis, the war at least from the Ukrainian perspective, is not going as well as it was a year ago and the Russians have currently launched an offensive or amidst an offensive around the city of Kharkiv.

Rob, why don’t you set the scene for Chain Reaction listeners about what’s been going on?

Rob Lee: Ukraine conducted an offensive last summer and at the end of it, it primarily culminated when Ukraine ran out of infantry. They took attrition and by September, or October, they really didn’t have much infantry left and in order to continue doing assaults, they were pulling guys out of different MOSs, but they ran out of infantry. And since then, Ukraine had three main issues since early fall, and one was a lack of ammunition.

That was obviously exacerbated by the US debating the aid package, which just passed recently, manpower, and fortifications. The frontline and the battlefield were very fortified, but Ukraine didn’t have the same defense in depth that Russia built in 2022 and 2023, which played a really important role last summer. And so they’re doing that now.

The fortifications are notable because in Kharkiv, there are fortifications they built more recently. There are questions about some of it, right? So some Ukrainian soldiers who are there say that some of the initial fortifications were not properly done.Some of them say that some of the fortifications were well built, but not necessarily built in the right areas, not necessarily taking advantage of terrain, things like that. But overall, I think we can say the fortification situation is getting better.

But the main issue is manpower. So, all winter, obviously, you heard all the stories about the ammunition problem. Russia probably had a five- or six-to-one artillery advantage in terms of rounds fired every day. There was an aviation advantage. These glide bombs can be dropped at longer ranges outside the range of air defense systems. 

Ukraine also had a lack of air defense munitions. It made it more difficult to protect the front, use their force at the front line, and also protect the cities from these strikes and infrastructure.

But manpower became a really big problem. And basically, ever since last summer, Ukraine has struggled to replace combat losses. Not just to build new units, but even to replace the losses they have month to month.

And that’s become a really significant problem. And I went there with Mike Kofman, Konrad Muzyka and Frantz Stefan-Gadyi last November, as well as in February – March this year. And the findings were the same.

Basically, the same three main issues we saw in November were still the three main issues we saw a month and a half ago, except that the manpower problem had gotten worse. So brigades are already under strength in November, they were even more under strength a month and a half ago. I think the situation hasn’t necessarily improved.

Ukraine passed the mobilization bill last month, it comes into effect this week. So it increases penalties for people who avoid mobilization, and it tries to increase the incentives for volunteers. It’s still a bit of a question, will this be sufficient to meet Ukraine’s manpower needs? That part’s not fully clear.

 And of course, the effect of this mobilization bill probably will not be felt for a month or two because it takes time to train soldiers and to form new units. The requirements now are something that should have been met by mobilizing or trying to get more people two, or three months ago. And the effects of this will probably be felt in a few months. 

The overall situation essentially is that this winter, Russia had a number of advantages in ammunition, in air power, and other precision-guided munitions, and then manpower became the big one. Russia was able to fix most of the manpower problems last year. They were able to get some 300,000 or more volunteers. They’re roughly recruiting about 30,000 volunteers a month. And that means it’s not just involuntarily mobilized people, it’s not just prisoners, but also people who are volunteering.

The quality varies. You’re getting older guys, you’re getting soldiers who aren’t necessarily ideal. And there’s always stories about Russia getting people from other countries and kind of coercing them into serving. But all it means is they’re getting these guys to go into assaults. And that’s what Russia requires in order to actually make the most of this kind of ammunition advantage. And basically, ever since last October/November, Russia’s been on the offensive.

They began that offensive in Avdiivka last October, which they ultimately took in February. And now I think we’re seeing the beginning of a new offensive this summer that’s also gonna kind of continue. I think Russia wants to continue pressing advantages while it has its advantages in 2024.

AS: This, for people who haven’t been following it, raises a number of questions. As I understand it, there are compounding issues. One was domestic to the United States and that the delay in Congress approving multi-billions of dollars for the Department of Defense to continue to support Ukraine with the transfer of weapons from US stockpiles. That’s one issue. 

Two is that Russia, after being sort of hit on the chin in the first year or two of the war, found its footing in terms of mobilization of people and mobilization of its defense industry. 

And then three, Ukraine, after, let’s say, weathering and going on its own offensive, basically got stuck in the mud bureaucratically, and also their government was unwilling to make some hard decisions about the mobilization or the forced mobilization of manpower to continue this conflict.

When you look at this from the Russian perspective, were they preparing for this all winter to push into the summer so that they expect gains by the spring? Basically, are they preparing for this to be a summer of an offensive so that they can go and recapture the city?

RL: I think they’ve prepared additional units for the summer. We know their units are in reserve right now. They’re waiting to commit, and we’re waiting to kind of see where they commit them. But overall, they’ve had such a manpower advantage that they’ve been able to kind of maintain these kinds of consistent assaults all winter and all spring to prevent Ukraine from preparing better defenses and from rotating units. 

It’s stretched Ukraine’s forces even more. It’s this kind of persistent offensive action that they’ve been doing that makes it even more difficult for Ukraine. 

So they can’t rotate units. They have to use their most elite units to plug holes. And essentially the manpower problem, at a very basic level, is that Ukraine does not have enough infantry soldiers to man trenches. And the more the losses are means the guys who are manning trenches have fewer people to rotate them with. So the situation gets compounded by the fewer soldiers you get, and the burden on these infantry grows even worse. And that’s my big concern, is that the infantry is this massive burden on them at this time, and it’s getting worse, and you risk exhausting these people.

In terms of Russia’s goals, I think Donbass is still the priority. I think they have prepared a summer offensive, but in reality, they’ve been pressing these last five to six months. They’ve been trying to take advantage of the lack of ammunition. All while the US was debating this aid package. I think that the important thing to emphasize though is that even with this aid package passing doesn’t solve all of Ukraine’s problems. 

There’s still this manpower problem that has not been solved. There are other issues and coordination problems. And while the aid package was partially about being able to appropriate funds, there are still issues with the US stockpiles and US production capacity. So Russia is still going to have an artillery advantage. They’re still going to have the advantage in other systems. There’s still a question about air defense systems. Do we have enough missiles being produced to satisfy Ukraine’s needs? That part isn’t clear.

There is a new FrankenSAM program. We’re trying to marry US air defense missiles to Soviet-style air defense systems. It’s not fully clear how those are performing yet and that’s the kind of big bet we’re making. There are still some big questions there, even with the aid package, of the limitations that Ukraine will have.

But when we talk about the Kharkiv offensive and how we put it in context, I think this is the beginning of a larger offensive. Russia has all these advantages in forces and manpower, and  I think they’re deliberately trying to stretch Ukraine’s forces even more. And they’re trying to present a dilemma to Ukraine. Kharkiv is right by the border, only, I think, 25 kilometers from it. If Russia advances there, even a small distance, they’ve already advanced about five kilometers or more. If they advance within 10 kilometers or more, you start getting within range of tube artillery. That puts the city at great risk. It can put the roads into the city at a good risk. It makes life and just living in the city even tougher.

And it’s already been tough because Russia’s been conducting missile strikes and guided bomb strikes in Kharkiv for some time. So that makes life in the city much more difficult. I think what Russia is doing is not necessarily trying to take the city, because the force they’ve committed there is probably not big enough to do that. I think what they’re trying to do is draw Ukrainian units away from the Donbass. Then when Russia commits reserves in the Donbass, they’ll have fewer Ukrainian units to fight against them and it’s a way of setting the conditions for that.

The problem is, even as Russia makes gains, they’re probably going to try to get as close to the city as possible. And they’re going to try and entrench and build very good fortifications so that while Ukraine may have enough forces to defend the city, it will not necessarily have enough to take back those areas. And if those units are still close to the city, that will pin down Ukrainian forces for a long time because there will be no depth there.

So Ukraine can’t pull units away to fight elsewhere because they may risk the city itself. And of course, it creates this kind of buffer zone. We know that Ukraine has been doing some cross-border raids last year with these Russian groups and other kinds of groups from Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence. That’s been in Belgorod and elsewhere. I think Russia wants to create some kind of buffer region to make those types of raids more difficult and to basically occupy some other areas across the border that make it more difficult for Ukraine to conduct strikes within Russian territory and elsewhere. So I think that’s what Russia is trying to achieve.

Ukraine has, from open source information, moved brigades and forces that were based in Chasiv Yar, this big battle that is occurring right now, or is about to occur, to Kharkiv. The 92nd Assault Brigade allegedly has been moved up there. The 42nd Mechanized Brigade was in that area. The Kraken Unit, part of Ukraine’s defense intelligence, also has been moved up there. 

I don’t think Russia will be able to take Kharkiv. Keep in mind that they advanced pretty quickly in the first few days. Ukraine has good defenses built, and they’ve got good brigades manning those defenses. So further Russian advances will get more difficult, and we’ll probably see that become a problem for Russia. The issue though is that once they start committing forces from the Avdiivka front to the Chasiv Yar front, Ukraine probably has fewer units available to plug holes there, and it means a greater risk that Russia is going to be able to break through in one of those directions and advance deeper into Donbass this summer.

AS: This brings to mind the point of US aid. Obviously, the point of US and European aid is to aid in Ukraine’s defense. But as you look at the packages coming in, what are your thoughts on what is needed first to triage this situation?

We hear air defense missiles, we hear air defense systems, and we hear artillery. But I also think about the necessity of Ukraine to be able to conduct offensive strikes. And so I’m thinking about ATACMS, Storm Shadow, and the long sought-after Taurus from Germany, which I know is on the agenda, but can never quite get over the line.

What are your thoughts on the mix of offensive and defensive systems that Ukraine needs immediately to blunt this offensive?

RL: A lot of those long-range strike missiles will help because they provide kind of an asymmetric response to some of these Russian advantages. So one issue that Russia is facing is growing equipment problems. They pull out tanks every month, refurbish them, and send them to the front. But over time, Russia’s lost a lot of equipment, it’s the Avdiivka offensive they conducted last year, they continue to lose a lot of equipment. And that will likely be the big issue at some point in the future, where it limits the size of Russian assaults. They’re not running out of tanks anytime soon, but that issue could grow next year. Some of these long-range missiles can potentially disrupt a Russian offensive operation. You can potentially hit ammo depots, oil facilities, troop concentrations, the Donbass, etc. Those things could affect it. The strategic campaign is a little less clear to me.

There’s obviously been a focus on hitting oil refineries in Russia, and I know there’s a debate about that and whether the US thinks that’s the right move. Long-term, it may be. In the near term, it’s not gonna have enough effect, so it’s a little more of a long-term question. I think really what the Ukrainians need, as much as possible, is artillery ammunition. Artillery’s been the main killer in this war, like in most wars. 

They need a lot of mines. That was something that was really effective for Russia last summer, and effective in Ukraine last winter. A lot of anti-tank mines make it more difficult to get around them, anti-tank guided missiles, javelins, those things. When Ukraine was getting less ammunition from the US this winter and spring, they had to rely more on FPVs, these commercial UAVs strapped with RPG ammunition that fly into tanks. They can be quite effective, but they’re not a replacement for artillery mines, anti-tank guided missiles, and other systems.

And it was very clear the last few months that this is the case because Russia was making gains despite Ukraine having a lot of FPVs, but not enough of these other systems. And one thing that Russia has done is they adapted some of their tanks to build these massive shelters around them that can kind of counter FPVs. But these wouldn’t be as effective against another tank or anti-tank guided missile or mines. So those are the things that make it more difficult for Russia to advance.  

If Ukraine can deploy a lot of mines, that’ll help a lot. In terms of air defense, as I said before, some of this is tactical air defense systems like man-pads and short-range air defense systems. They need to counter Russian ISR UAVs. The reconnaissance UAVs are always operating behind their front lines, and it makes it very difficult for Ukraine to operate tanks and artillery because they’ll get spotted very quickly and can then get targeted by Russian systems. So ideally more cost-effective missiles that can counter these kinds of ISR UAVs like Orlan, Supercam, and that’s important. Patriots are important because not only can they defend against ballistic missiles and other missiles in the main cities, but they also are a long-range air defense system that can counter Russian bombers. 

And there’s always a risk because they don’t have enough of them to defend their cities anyway. It’s always a question if they’ve got more of these batteries and more missiles, they can be even more aggressive in how they employ them and then can test the airspace more. Of course, we’re waiting to see F-16s arrive sometime this summer or fall, most likely, although probably the initial group is going to be quite small. They’re not the most modern version of F-16s. So I think we have to temper expectations here. Hopefully, they’ll play a role in contesting the airspace better, but it may not have the effect that some people have said.

Aside from all these basic systems we’re talking about, I think armored vehicles are a big one. Ukraine is trying to form new units and in many cases, they don’t have enough armored vehicles. This means, in a lot of cases, they don’t have armored vehicles like the M113, a very simple armored personnel carrier the US has. We have a lot of these. Ukraine loves these systems. They’re great for equipping new brigades. They’re very important for casualty evacuation. A lot of times, you can’t evacuate if you don’t have an armored vehicle. In a number of cases, guys who are wounded in action, who could be pulled out, ultimately die because they’re unable to pull them out in time. So little things like that. More armored vehicles, more armored Humvees.

Again, this is something the US has massive stockpiles of, I don’t think we need those kinds of numbers and Ukraine would appreciate all those systems. All those things would help Ukraine fight this attritional kind of fight and take less casualties in doing so.

So there are a lot of things; high-end things like ATACAMS, which are important, which do play a role. And there’s a lot of things they need in large quantities, including really simple systems like Humvees, M113s, and just ammunition.

AS: So when you’re talking about this it’s quite clear that the Russians have learned in this conflict as well. If you think back to the early days of this conflict, some of the challenges in the Russian strike complex was getting missiles on targets when they were identified by forward drones. You just talked about the challenges that the Ukrainians are facing now.

Can you talk a little bit about Russia’s evolution in terms of how they’re conducting this war, what they’ve learned, and how that’s perhaps helped or hindered by the way that the battle lines, I don’t want to say have ossified, because we’re talking about the Russian advances around Kharkiv, but they’ve more or less ossified. And we’re talking about small chunks of territory rather than the broader Russian ambition of taking over the capital city.

RL: Well, Russia’s force now, it improved some aspects, and other sides have kind of frayed and degraded. Overall, in terms of the quality of units and manpower, the quality has gone down. The quantity has gone up now, but the quality overall has gone down. A lot of their best leaders have been lost. They have a lot of combat experience, so you do have a mix here. 

Their elite units like Naval Infantry, VDV, maintain decent standards there, but they’re also getting guys who are in their 40s or 50s. So there are quality issues there too. But overall, they get those units to go into assault.

They’re elite units, they will often fight to the death. They won’t necessarily run away. It says something about quality in this regard, that they’re willing to fight, they’re not simply going to run away.

So  I think the force quality question is still an issue. And a lot of these assaults they do are small scale. It’s platoon level plus a massive amount of artillery, and other kinds of support. And some of this comes down to just forcing guys to do assaults. One thing we were told on the last trip there is that executions have become more common and that they’ve devolved that responsibility, in some cases squad leaders. So squads will sometimes fight to the death, but the squad leaders get killed or wounded, then the squad guys may surrender. But basically, squad leaders are authorized in some cases to execute soldiers who don’t go into assaults, who refuse, and so on. This is potentially something they adapted from Wagner. So they still have issues there. 

It’s still an issue, even when Russia has achieved some breakthroughs, like in the Ocheretyne area earlier on the Avdiivka front, they weren’t necessarily able to exploit them as fast as they would have hoped. And that could be a question of whether they didn’t have reserves, they didn’t have enough armor, and also just the quality of the units they’re talking about. They can take some territory a bit at a time, but not necessarily achieve the same kind of breakthrough like Ukraine achieved in Kharkiv back in 2022.

Other capabilities improved, like the reconnaissance fire complex and reconnaissance strike complex, this is the kind of kill chain that they use. In the beginning of the war, they didn’t have enough UAVs, and then the coordination was not great. At this point, they have far more UAVs in service. A lot of these Orlan Super Cam type UAVs operate at kind of operational depths, in addition to tactical like Mavic and other kinds of UAVs they use in the front. So they have more of those UAVs, which means even if they get shot down, they have enough to replace them.

The quality is better. So there are different types of Orlans. The Orlan 30 can laze targets for laser guided munitions.

They have far more Orlan 30s now than they did at the beginning of the war. Recently, they said they have another kind of UAV that can laze targets too. I think the number of precision guided munitions has increased too. So you have lazed loaded munitions that can also strike targets at operational depth. 

They have more Iskander ballistic missiles that are tied into the system, and more Krasnopol and other kinds of laser guided artillery rounds. So they have more PGMs that can be used on targets once they are located. Overall, I think, their targeting package has improved. We are told in some cases they will use SIGNINT or other kinds of intelligence capabilities to locate targets. If they see or detect enough cell phones in one area, that might be enough to drop a guided bomb at a distance. If they see radar emissions, that might be enough to task a UAV to go look at what is happening and then try and bring in a land-to-loading mission and so on. They have improved a lot of those capabilities. The timing between locating a target and striking a target has certainly gotten better. 

I assume they made some organizational command and control adaptations to improve this as well. Overall, they have far more UAVs than they did at the beginning of the war. It’s very clear, I think, for command and control or leaders at all levels of the Russian military. They understand the benefits of UAVs at this point, which they didn’t necessarily begin at the war. So a lot of these capabilities have improved. And it means, that one thing we’ve seen in the last few months that’s been notable, is that Russia has had some success hitting targets at operational depths with Iskander-M, with Tornado-S, MLS, Lancets, including Patriot systems, High-Mars systems, helicopters, and FARPs, things of that nature and it poses a bigger problem to Ukraine. 

Another problem is that when Avdiivka fell, many of those UAVs that were very focused on Avdiivka now are focused on Pokrovsk, this kind of key logistic subsidy further in the Donbass is probably Russia’s main goal at this point. It makes it more difficult for Ukraine to get things to the front line because they only have a certain number of roads they can use and these Russian UAVs will sit over these roads waiting for targets of opportunity and they can adjudicate and prosecute those targets more effectively now than before.

AS: Absolutely. Final question here. One of the Ukrainians’ biggest advantages was Russian incompetence, which I think was exemplified by Sergei Shoigu, who wasn’t forced out as best as I can tell, because he moved on in positions.

And I want to place this in a broader context because it’s too early for you to comment on what the transition in the Russian leadership means. I think a lot of people were very optimistic that the Ukrainians could repeat the successes that they had which ultimately led to them taking Kharkiv back from the Russians. I believe it was last summer, but correct me if I forgot my timeline. And it seems like this war is ground down.

So what are the realistic expectations for the Ukrainians at the back end of 2024 and then looking ahead into 2025?

RL: I’ll answer the last part first. So, you know, manpower is a big problem. And that’s why we talk about US aid and what can Ukraine achieve, ultimately it comes down to, can Ukraine mobilize enough soldiers to form new units? Right now, Ukrainian brigades are under strength. Not even talking about new units, but just the existing units are under strength.

They don’t have enough infantry in particular, and a lot of people have been mobilized when they’re 40s or older, so they may have a certain number of people in their books, but the number of guys who can actually man trenches is less. And of course, over time, people need rest. It’s been a very intense war for these guys. And so, the issue right now is that the US can send a lot of things without the manpower there. It’s going to be a significant weakness either way.  And you can only compensate so much for not having enough infantry guys who will man trenches. 

I wrote an article in January talking about what the strategy should be for 2024 and 2025, and the idea was basically that in 2024, Russia would have a variety of advantages and that if Ukraine can hold effectively and can inflict a lot of loss on Russia, maybe in 2025, there are the conditions to do an offensive, but it won’t be for 2024. Well, Ukraine still has not addressed the manpower situation since then.

Maybe we’ll see the effects of the mobilization bill,  but one of the big issues last summer is that Russia built very good defenses. Those defenses are still there. They haven’t degraded. Ukraine built a bunch of new brigades. The theory of success here was that with new brigades, mobilized soldiers would be the ones to breach these defensive lines and conduct this offensive. Well, it didn’t work out. And part of it was because new brigades didn’t have enough time to train together. 

So one of the lessons learned there was that at a minimum, if we’re going to ask Ukrainian brigades to do this again, try and breach Russian lines, they need more time to train together.  And they need other advantages. The problem was that last summer, Ukraine had a rough parity in ammunition fire, so both sides are shooting around at the same number. That’s not going to be the case this summer or next summer. Even with the US aid increasing, I don’t think we’re going to get to a point where Ukraine has parity again.

So that’s one way it’s going to be more difficult. The manpower situation was probably better last summer than it’s going to be at any time in the future. For some of the capabilities, I think things kind of came together better last summer than they’re probably going to likely come together this year or next year. It’s possible Ukraine could do an offensive next year, but I think a lot of this is going to come down to the Russian side. One thing we’ve seen in this war, Russia over-extended during 2022. It left them vulnerable in Kharkiv, Kherson, and at the end of 2022 when Ukraine made its gains.

Ukraine over-extended last summer, and everything since then has been partially a result of that, and partially the US not passing an aid package. But Ukraine did not have enough guys to keep fighting and not enough units being trained. Russia may over-extend, but a lot of it comes down to the manpower situation. Can Russia continue recruiting 30,000 guys a month? If they can, it’s going to be very tough for Ukraine, no matter what.

In 2024, I don’t think Ukraine has real prospects for any kind of offensive. Summer 2025, maybe. But it’s become less likely because the manpower decisions have been delayed and they haven’t been fixed. It raises tough questions because the manpower problems have been known since last fall. The fact they haven’t been fixed for so long suggests it could be difficult to fix. I think it’s going to be a longer war that will go into 2025. It’s hard to kind of predict more than six months of advanced war, but it’s far from certain that Ukraine is going to be able to do an offensive in 2025, even with some kind of additional aid from the US elsewhere. It’s really going to depend on the manpower side, a lot of it, and some other factors.

Regarding the change of command in Russia, it’s still early. I had a tweet yesterday about some early thoughts.

Ultimately, we’ll have to see how it plays out. We know that Shoigu has taken over the secretary position of the security council, which is supposedly an important position. Some people debate to what extent it’s more of a kind of formality or not. Nikolai Patrushev, who was removed, is supposed to get a new position. It’s not clear. Will this new position be just a way of pushing him out of the inner circle into a kind of less important position? Will it be something new? We’ll have to wait and see. I don’t think any of these people are falling out of favor, even if they’re being shuffled, because Putin doesn’t necessarily do that. And these people are loyal to Putin, and I think he, especially at the Wagner mutiny, really respects that. 

So it’s interesting that Shoigu has been in charge of the Ministry of Defense since 2012. Gerasimov, too.  And so both of them probably should have been swapped out before the war, but then again Patrushev has been in positions since 2008. So again, the broader point is that the system Putin has in place, these people have been there for a long time.

The rest of the power agencies were not changed, right? Because it’s a new government, the government gets dissolved and they have to get reappointed. That’s why the timing is happening, I don’t think it’s an indication that the war is going poorly, because right now they have a number of advantages. I think the question of why Shoigu was removed and you have a new person in charge who has a background in economics. The last few ministers of defense, including Shoigu, had never served in the military. He was in charge of the Russian Ministry of Emergent Situations, which is kind of a semi-paramilitary force, but it’s more of a civilian force.

The guy before that, Anatoly Sergeyevich, was also a civilian who I think was conscripted into the Soviet military. He served like a year, but nothing significant. His background was in business, he was a furniture store manager, and he was a minister of taxes before that. And I think when you talk about who needs to be in charge of the Ministry of Defense before Putin came to power, it was always a retired general. And I think one of the things that Putin brought, initially his co-associate, Sergei Ivanov, was the first minister of defense that he appointed. He was a former KGB officer. His career kind of went downward at the end of that, but everyone since then has been a civilian.

I think Putin wants someone who is not beholden to the Russian military’s interests, who is not going to only support what Russian generals want. He’ll be willing to do reforms. And so when Serdyukov was put in place, it was deliberate, he wanted someone that would reform the system. He wanted someone from outside the system who’d be willing to upset these retired generals. One thing he did was reduce the number of generals in the service, and he angered a lot of people. Shoigu was something of a compromise, where he rolled back some of those reforms. But ultimately, he clearly wasn’t reforming the MOD enough, and he wasn’t inspecting things enough. The number of claims the MOD leadership had before the war about the number of battalion groups that were ready and had contract soldiers, numbers were lower than they were letting on. It’s clear there were personnel issues.

They didn’t have enough contract soldiers. A lot of the Russian units when they began the war had issues, some of the equipment issues that they said they’d fix. So it’s not shocking that he’s been moved on.

It’s also not shocking that the new figure has a background in economics. I think mostly they want a minister of defense who can manage the bureaucracy better, can manage other things, can maybe throw up the BS flag when they see something that’s not going the right way, and basically some of that can bring better standards to things and do the audit. That was similar to why Serdyukov was brought in, a guy with a tax background. When Serdyukov came in, he brought in a number of women from the tax ministry who also were doing the same thing. They had no defense background. That part wasn’t necessarily required. 

Still, a question about Gerasimov, if he’ll stay. When Serdyukov came in, he brought in a new chief of the general staff as well. So did Shoigu when he came in, so Gerasimov is an open question. Of course, in this case, Gerasimov is also directly in charge of the war and he took that responsibility a year and a half ago. So there’s a question there: do you want to remove him at the same time? Do you want to have a new chief of the general staff who is not running the military, not running the war? The long-term prospects are not fully clear.

Some people have suggested this is a demotion for Shoigu, that it’s kind of a stepping stone to remove him completely. To give him a position where he doesn’t have control of any agencies and any kind of budget and then move him on later. Maybe that’s the case, who knows? But either way, it’s certainly a significant move because Shoigu has been in charge for 12 years. And obviously, the MoD is playing a very key role in Russian foreign policy, and Russian defense policy in general. We know that Russia is in a wartime economy, and other aspects of the Russian government are all mobilized for this war. So it is a significant change, but I think it’s a little early to have complete firm conclusions about what it means and about who is the big loser.  We’ll have to wait and see. 

AS: Well, we’re going to leave it there, Rob. Thanks for taking time this morning to talk about this, and thanks everybody for listening.