In the first war of the Information Age, it is only fitting that Ukraine’s Chief of Army used a well-edited and inspiring social media video today to announce that Ukraine was ready ‘to take back what is ours.’ Even the tagline is well-crafted! This video is a clear statement of intent and fits into the wider picture of Ukraine ‘shaping’ Russian forces; or weakening their enemy before they strike.
Last week, the pre-offensive shaping battle saw Ukraine turn Putin’s own hybrid tactics against him when on 23 May, a group of anti-Putin Russian soldiers crossed the border near Belgorod and spent a couple of days wreaking havoc in a couple of small villages near the border. In and of itself this raid is nothing militarily, the area captured is small and tactically unimportant and eventually the raid was easily repelled. It is also not a new occurrence the same group have launched small cross border raids before, most recently two months ago in Bryansk oblast (region).
However, this raid is different because it more directly links to Ukraine’s larger strategy to shape Russian forces for their coming offensive. It is part of the wider pattern of activity that this column has been describing for a couple of weeks; and recently Ukrainian shaping operations appear to have shifted from weakening Russian forces physically with long range missile attacks or winning the propaganda war, to a new area of focus. The new focus appears to be imposing ‘simultaneity’ upon Russia’s command structure. The term ‘simultaneity’ is used in Manoeuvre War theory to describe a situation in which an opponent’s decision-making processes are overwhelmed. Generally, simultaneity is created by using tactics like attacking in multiple places so the enemy is left guessing where the real blow fall, or by exhausting a command team by making them respond to many small attacks over a long period of time, or by using deception to create surprise. Essentially, overwhelming the enemy’s ability to make quality decisions by providing too much information with too little time to consider it before reacting.
Earlier, in the shaping campaign we saw Ukrainian activities designed to wear down Russia’s frontline soldiers. In recent weeks, Ukrainian long-range missile strikes have targeted Russia’s depth, the area behind the frontline. Command centres, fuel dumps, ammunition dumps and barracks have all been hit slowly but surely isolating the frontline soldier. The Ukrainians physically demonstrating to the Russian soldier on the frontline that nowhere in Ukraine is safe because their supporting units far behind the frontline are being destroyed. So that on the frontline, soldiers are not getting the support they need eating away at their confidence and undermining trust in their superiors. A poorly fed soldier, short of ammunition can still fight effectively if they are well led and feel that they are fighting for a good cause. The question is whether Russian junior leadership is effective and can counter this tactic because if they are not their soldier’s moral and motivation decreases.
It is a clever psychological tactic. By attacking their enemy’s logistics Ukraine aims to undermine their will to fight, shaping the coming ‘close’ battle. The aim being that when the Ukrainian tanks cross their line of departure, they meet demoralised Russian soldiers ready to surrender rather than fight. Tired, young men that have not been resupplied recently, do not have the ammunition or fuel they need, cannot get medical support and whose leaders are confused and inept.
At the command level, we can see that the ongoing fight in and around Bakhmut is clearly providing an opportunity for Ukraine to hamper effective Russian decision-making. Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of Wagner Group turning the battle into a political feud and filling social media with statements that undermine trust and confidence in the Russian command structure. Statements that are sure to be circulating on the front lines and contributing to lowering the moral of soldiers who will soon face the Ukrainian attack.
Further, Prigozhin’s politicisation of the military creates an unhealthy, uncollaborative environment within Russia’s command structure. His friends and favourites, like General Surovakin on one-side; Defence Minister Shoigu, General Gerasimov and their supporters on the other. It is impossible to see how such a fractured command team can work together to make quality decisions. Prigozhin’s threat last week that Wagner Group will withdraw by the start of June, handing the city over to the Russian army demonstrating just how broken the Russian system is. Imagine being in Gerasimov’s situation, trying to organise replacement forces to take over the still contested city as the Wagner troops holding it withdraw without reference to you; or your planning! And; at the same time being relentlessly politically attacked in the media.
It is a very tough situation one in which Gerasimov, the overall commander is trying to juggle an enormous number of tasks including military ones like figuring out where Ukraine plans to attack and how to defeat them. And; political ones like managing Putin and Prigozhin. Russia’s military command structure is more like an episode of Succession, rather than the workings of a professional military.
And; it is with knowledge of this situation that Ukraine subtly changed their focus this week. Bakhmut is already serving as a distraction, bringing a range of political problems into military decision-making, creating difficult dilemmas for Gerasimov and his staff officers to try and manage. Imagine how difficult it is to organise a relief in place of the Wagner Group forces in Bakhmut. First, where will the soldiers come from? How do you get them to the city? Finally, you need to coordinate a difficult evolution like a relief in place with a group of semi-professional thugs, who only care about getting out of the city?
Then this week, far from the current battle a group of anti-Putin Russians crossed the border and created havoc near Belgorod. The raid created a social media frenzy and spurred a mass evacuation of civilians from the area. The ease of the crossing makes it obvious that the border is lightly defended, and that Russia’s commanders had thought that the area was safe. That Ukraine would not risk the ire of its NATO allies by crossing the border. Unfortunately, Ukraine has obviously studied Russia’s ideas about hybrid war known as ‘Gerasimov doctrine’ after its key proponent; and found a way to cross the border without upsetting their allies. Ukraine, recruited a third party to use as a proxy providing a level of ‘implausible’ deniability. The third party being a group of loosely affiliated Russian anti-Putin groups; the Russian Freedom Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps.
The raid was a propaganda success because although footage of the raid did not make it onto Russian state media news, we can be certain that it circulated widely on Telegram. That Russian soldiers looking north in Zaporizhia waiting for the Ukrainian offensive will be watching it and wondering – Why are we here? Shouldn’t we be at home defending Russia? Civilians across Russia will be looking at the video and questioning whether their faith in Putin as a protector is justified. And; in the Kremlin people looking for an opportunity will be watching it and seeing weakness that could be exploited.
However, regarding the coming battle the impact is much more than just propaganda. By providing base areas, weapons and training to these small groups Ukraine has created a proxy force that can pin down large numbers of Russian soldiers along the previously uncontested stretch of border. This attack doubles the length of frontline that Russia’s military needs to secure. And; this forces an already over-extended Russian command structure to have to make more difficult decisions because the simple fact is that every soldier, or tank taken out of Zaporizhia is one less soldier, or tank able to stop the Ukrainian offensive.
By putting ourselves into Gerasimov’s shoes we can see the effectiveness of Ukraine’s shaping operations over the previous months. The physical shaping such as attacking logistics hubs and probing attacks are easier for a professional soldier to deal with, they are trained to anticipate this sort of activity. Bakhmut however is a different kind of shaping operation and is a demonstration of hybrid war. This battle evolved from winning a psychological victory by holding a small, relatively insignificant city into an example of blending political, propaganda and physical effects to shape the enemy. The evolution saw the operation’s main effort switch from defending the city; to one that I argue, is designed to target Russia’s command structure by reinforcing existing political divisions. Essentially, Ukraine realise Prigozhin is a weak link and has fought the battle specifically to create the conditions for him to undermine trust and confidence in the conventional military chain of command.
Hence, the recent counter attacks in the area to keep the battle going forcing Gerasimov to pay attention to it and to manage Prigozhin. Attention that would be better employed elsewhere planning and figuring out how to defeat Ukraine’s offensive. Then the next layer of hybrid pressure was added with the Belgorod operation. Again, an operation that blends political, propaganda and physical effects to shape the enemy. This time forcing Gerasimov into a series of resource and planning dilemmas as he tries to figure out a way to secure another 900 km of frontline from possible attack.
In summary, it seems likely that Gerasimov and his staff are close to simultaneity, that they have so many different problems to manage that they are overwhelmed and that their decision-making will deteriorate and become ineffective. If command breaks down completely, Russia will not be able to move reserves to counter the Ukrainian attack contributing significantly to the likelihood of a large victory. Next week could see the culmination of Ukraine’s shaping operations taking us a step closer to the transition to offensive operations.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger