The first thing he did upon the announcement was to vaguely declare that “tough decisions” would have to be made, the first major hint that Russia would be retreating from its positions in northern Kherson oblast. Ukraine had destroyed the two key bridges into the region and it wasn’t feasible to support military operations via barge. His second major accomplishment was the orderly withdrawal of the 20,000–40,000 troops in that area despite serious Ukrainian pressure. Russia’s loss of life and equipment was minimal, a stark contrast to the chaotic, panicked retreat just a few months prior from Kharkiv oblast in northeastern Ukraine, the one that gifted Ukraine hundreds of pieces of abandoned armor and artillery.
Surovikin then worked to lock in Russian gains across the entire contact line, digging an extensive network of defensive emplacements, multiple layers deep, signaling to Ukraine that any new counteroffensive would be (prohibitively?) costly. It worked. After Ukraine’s massive gains in Kharkiv and Kherson, the front lines stabilized. A wet autumn certainly helped, but it was now clear that Ukraine had picked the low-hanging fruit. Anything moving forward would require serious effort.
Surovikin had one last gambit up his sleeve: He commanded Russia’s costly effort to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, betting it would generate a brand new European refugee crisis, driving millions of Ukrainians toward the west. Putin expected these refugees, along with cutting off Europe from Russian gas, would plunge the continent into crisis, raise public discontent, and severely amp pressure both internationally, and internally in Ukraine, to negotiate a “peace” that would freeze the current lines until Russia could regroup, refit, and restart the conflict on its own terms.
In reality, none of that happened. It took some serious work, but Europe hasn’t had any trouble maintaining its energy stocks, to the point that gas prices have dropped below the levels when Russia cut off supplies in the summer. Thanks to large-scale international assistance and local ingenuity, Ukraine was able to quickly repair damage to its energy grid, giving Ukrainians little reason to leave their homeland. The attacks certainly didn’t break Ukraine’s fighting spirit—quite the opposite, in fact.
But there was one unintended consequence: Russia’s wanton brutality against civilian targets opened the floodgates for new weapons like advanced air defense systems, infantry fighting vehicles, and as of today, main battle tanks.
In other words, Russia wasted billions of dollars in dwindling missile stocks hitting nonmilitary targets, and left Ukraine stronger than before.
Perhaps it was that failure, or perhaps there’s Kremlin palace intrigue at play, but for whatever reason, Surovikin was demoted today. Russia’s top defense official Valery Gerasimov (equivalent to the chair of our Joint Chiefs of Staff) was put in charge of the war effort, with Surovikin named his deputy. This will put the Russian armed forces in direct conflict with his fierce critic Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenaries group.
In fact, they’re already taking shots at each other. Remember this video?
These two Wagner mercenaries are talking about Gerasimov. The next day, Prigozhin recorded a video with these same two soldiers lauding them for their actions. His message of contempt to Russia’s Ministry of Defense was clear. And today, both the Russian army and Prigozhin are taking credit for capturing Soledar.
Soledar hasn't even been captured.
In any case, Surovikin seemed a capable commander, stabilizing the fronts after massive Ukrainian advances and creating the conditions to stymie future Ukrainian gains. The missile attacks against civilian infrastructure were stupid and counterproductive, but I suspect that approach was made to satiate Putin’s blood lust, as it lacked military purpose. But it seems obvious, as well, that Putin wants to see progress. It’s embarrassing for him to say “Kherson is Russia” while Ukraine holds the important parts of the oblast (in particular, the regional capital). So off we go, with a new commander, and one that is in open conflict with one of the main armies in the field, those Wagner mercenaries.
What could go wrong?
Don't ask me what is going on in Soledar. Both sides are making 100% mutually exclusive claims about the status of the fighting. The fog of war is thick, with both sides incentivized to lie or exaggerate the state of play.
But until we see Russian video of their soldiers on the grounds of the salt mine without bullets whizzing by, we can assume that at least part of that town is still contested.
And it’s never a bad time to reflect on how Mighty Russia has put everything it has left into trying to take a town with little strategic value and a pre-war population of 10,000. It’s beyond laughable, except that hundreds, if not thousands, are dying on those streets.
With Germany resisting calls to “free the Leopards” (their European-standard main battle tank), a coalition of operator nations is lobbying for the necessary approval to gift them to Ukraine. Three days ago (was it really that recent?), Finland was the first to pledge Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine as part of any future international coalition. Poland seconded the motion a day later. Today, Poland flat-out pledged to send a company, 14 tanks, to Ukraine.
I picked that Tweet because that’s a sweet picture, one that would send shivers down the spine of any Russian opposite them in the battlefield.
If you want a primer on the Leopard 2, Mark Sumner’s got you.
To be clear, Poland can’t send those tanks without German approval, as it’s a standard clause in any weapons sale. Third-party sales have to always be approved by the original country, or a country could act as a third-party conduit for unsanctioned arms transfers. But along with Finland, Denmark has also joined this coalition of the willing. Spain offered earlier last year.
As I’ve written, don't expect Germany to lead. But they’re happy to follow. So while they may be reticent to be the first to approve a modern main battle tank for the battlefield, they no longer have to go first, as the United Kingdom just announced they are sending some of their Challenger 2s to Ukraine.
From a practical standpoint, this is a terrible option. A main battle tank (MBT) has severe logistical costs, and it’s hard enough to support one tank. Now Ukraine is supposed to support a handful of Challengers? Making things worse, while NATO standard MBTs have smooth-bore cannons and standard ammunition, Challengers have a rifled barrel and specialized rounds. It’s the last thing Ukraine needs.
But as a political decision, this is masterful! Heck, get these challengers into Ukraine and park them in Lviv, who cares. What matters is the Leopards. Except …
This speculative Twitter thread, tracking a military cargo flight from Jordan to the U.K., discusses the possibility that the U.K. might be considering buying back Challenger 1 tanks currently being phased out by Jordan. Jordan doesn’t just have 400 of them, but they are upgraded with NATO-standard cannons. The speculation is likely wrong, as the more likely explanation is Gepard anti-air ammunition, which Jordan has plenty of and Ukraine desperately needs. Regardless, those Jordanian upgraded first-generation Challengers are an intriguing possibility.
Back to the Leopard 2, current operators:
300+ Turkey, Spain
200+ Germany, Poland
100+ Austria, Finland, Greece, Sweden
50+ Denmark, Norway, Portugal
Turkey and Greece won’t share theirs; they’re in their own simmering Cold War. Spain has already offered some and would likely donate, as well as Poland (which is phasing out their 250 or so), Finland, and Denmark. Germany’s army is in shambles out of neglect, so they may not have any to give beyond a symbolic dozen or so, but even that helps. If Ukraine can get several hundred from this group, they’ll be in much better shape for their spring offensive.
As an aside, Poland has hundreds of Soviet-era tanks still in their possession, being replaced by M1 Abrams and South Korean K2 tanks. Polish President Andrzej Duda said today that all of its equipment being phased out would be sent to Ukraine. The sooner that happens, the better.
Live sports (and the NFL, in particular) accounted for the majority of the top 100 broadcasts of 2022. 88th on the list, and 17th if you exclude the NFL, was Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address at U.S. Capitol, with 16 million viewers—the same number who watched the Beijing
Summer Winter Olympics opening ceremonies.