A Reviled Russian General Drops Hint at War’s Long Drawdown

An official Russian emphasis on Donetsk if nothing else points to a tacit recognition that the Kremlin’s grip on Kherson in particular has essentially evaporated.

Valery Sharifulin, Sputnik, Kremlin pool via AP
President Putin during a news conference at the Kremlin December 22, 2022. Valery Sharifulin, Sputnik, Kremlin pool via AP

The dreary but defining event of this year, the war in Ukraine, will see its denouement early in the next one if a new prognostication from a top Russian general, Valery Gerasimov, is to be believed. According to a briefing, the details of which were subsequently posted on the Russian’s defense ministry’s Telegram channel on Thursday, the chief of the Russian army’s general staff claimed that Russian troops’ main efforts are currently focused on attempting to regain control of the self-declared, Russian-backed “Donetsk People’s Republic” in eastern Ukraine. 

“The situation on the frontline has stabilized and the main efforts of our troops are now focused on completing the liberation of the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” General Gerasimov said. He also matter-of-factly said the joint drills between Russian and Chinese warships in the East China Sea on Thursday are designed “to strengthen naval cooperation between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China and to maintain peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region.”

While deepening ties between Moscow and Beijing are of broader concern, the battle theater in eastern Ukraine and what a pivot there portends will have a determining factor in the course of the war. Donetsk is one of the four Ukrainian regions, along with Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson, that Russia attempted to unilaterally annex on September 30. It is the location of Bakhmut, the frontline city that has seen some of the fiercest fighting between Russian soldiers and Ukrainian defenders, and where President Zelensky made a daring, high-profile pit stop ahead of his flash visit to Washington on Wednesday. 

Russia claims to control about half of the DPR and all of the Luhansk. Both of those claims are difficult to verify independently, but an official Russian emphasis on Donetsk if nothing else points to a tacit recognition that the Kremlin’s grip on Kherson in particular has essentially evaporated. General Gerasimov said that last month’s decision “to evacuate the civilian population and the withdrawal of Russian troops from the right bank of the Dnieper in Kherson was made due to the fact that the Armed Forces of Ukraine had high-precision and long-range weapons.”

Another implication is that Moscow could soon shift all of its war efforts to Donbas, the eastern region of which both Donetsk and Luhansk are part. A turn in that direction has already been under way for some time, and does not mean that the rest of Ukraine can rest easy just yet. General Geramisov reiterated that Russia “continues to inflict fire damage on critical objects of the transport and energy infrastructure of Ukraine, storage areas for fuels and lubricants, missiles, ammunition, weapons, and military equipment.” 

Yet craven attacks on infrastructure are no substitute for Russia’s ever-expanding catalog of strategic blunders and miscalculations. 

As one would expect of a military official of General Gerasimov’s standing, he knows his geography: With respect to Donetsk, he stated that currently, “the line of contact has stretched for 506 miles,” adding that “taking into account the ongoing measures to build up the combat capabilities of groupings of troops, the situation on the frontline has stabilized.” Not a universally beloved figure, General Gerasimov has good reason to opt for tepid rhetoric. In April, Ukrainian forces attempted to kill the general near one of the frontlines. It is not likely that General Gerasimov will be making another attempt to approach the battle front himself anytime soon.

The Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, did however make an inspection of  military units deployed in Ukraine this week (exactly where was not clear), but only following reports that a previous visit was made several miles from the frontline.

Last week, General Gerasimov’s boss, Vladimir Putin, skipped his annual press conference but in the meantime the Russian president had his two roubles’ worth to say about Washington’s providing a Patriot missile battery to Ukraine. “Those who oppose us proceed from the fact that this [Patriot air defense system] is supposedly a defensive weapon,” Mr. Putin said at a state council meeting, adding, “Okay, we’ll just keep that in mind. And there is always an antidote.”

The renewed focus on Donbas, a large area fought over by Moscow and Kyiv well before Mr. Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24, also figured in official Russian reaction to  Mr. Zelensky’s trip to Washington. The Kremlin’s chief spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that “not a single word was heard warning Zelensky against the continued shelling of residential buildings in towns and villages in Donbas and there were no real calls for peace.” 

Mr. Peskov added that “this suggests that the United States is continuing its line of de facto fighting an indirect war with Russia to the last Ukrainian.”

Russian attempts to flip the script and put the onus of the prolongation of the war on the West is nothing new, but it is telling that the Kremlin made no immediate mention of by-now familiar Ukrainian place names like Kherson and Kyiv. This raises the interesting prospect of Moscow having boots on the ground, with possibly more to come, while also having more or less admitted to defeat.

The New York Sun

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