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Russia’s new level of danger in Ukraine: What’s the West to do?

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. 

This provides Russia with significant flexibility: After all, Ukrainian forces retook the stronghold of Lyman, in Donetsk Oblast, just a day after Putin’s annexation, and Russia did not employ nuclear weapons to defend its supposed territory.

In reality, Russia can afford to cede ground. It has cultivated and leveraged the once-comfortable assumption in the West that Russia, with its corrupt military and incompetent upper political echelons, has chosen a war far beyond its means. These diagnoses of Russian malaise — and in turn, the identification of impending Russian collapse — increase the apparent credibility of Putin’s nuclear threats. 

However, there are clear military-strategic reasons for Russia’s refusal to abandon the Dnipro River bridgehead. With Kherson in hand, Russia retains leverage over any Ukrainian exports. The Dnipro is deep and wide enough for ships to travel far upriver, making Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro major export hubs — and Kherson is the plug that bottles up Ukraine’s economy.

Moreover, the Kakhovka Dam creates the Kakhovka Reservoir, which provides water to the Crimea Canal. Crimea’s water-supply issues were a key factor in Russia’s invasion. Prior to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, the region produced around 10 percent of Ukraine’s crops; Ukraine then cut the Crimea Canal’s water supply to the peninsula — the canal provided an estimated 85 percent of Crimea’s water — which destroyed Crimea’s crop yields. Russia could have rectified that situation by investing far more heavily in local water supplies, desalination plants and a new water link with Krasnodar alongside the Kerch Strait Bridge. Yet the Kremlin reportedly had spent $1 billion to $2.7 billion annually on subsidies for the newly-absorbed peninsula, routinely supporting some two-thirds of its budget. The Kremlin perhaps assumed it would be more cost-effective to reconquer the Crimea Canal. 

Russia cannot simply abandon the Dnipro bridgehead, then, because Crimea’s water supply would again be under threat. Ukraine need not even push south into Kherson; it could dam the Kakhovka Reservoir more directly, thereby pressuring Crimea.

The upshot, however, is that Russia’s rumored threat to the Kakhovka Dam is likely a bluff. Destroying it would release a massive wave that would complicate any Ukrainian offensive into Kherson Oblast — but it would destroy Russian positions south of the Dnipro as well and, given the topography, Russian-occupied territory may be at greater risk than Kherson City itself. Most critically, it would eliminate Crimea’s water supply indefinitely. 

Instead, Surovikin has shifted his aerial approach. Using Iranian loitering-drone munitions and remaining Russian cruise and ballistic missiles, he has targeted power stations throughout the country, triggering a wave of rolling blackouts. This will not break Ukrainian will — but it will disrupt Ukrainian operations. More important, it will force Ukraine to distribute air defenses from the front lines to facilitate offensives elsewhere. It is Russia’s most effective use of force in the war thus far. 

Interwar deterrence is a lost art; the West has not fought a limited war against an adversary capable of counter-escalation in some time. It should be noted that the West has succeeded in deterring various Russian actions even within the limited war’s scope — Russia has not struck convoys with NATO weapons in western Ukraine, for example. 

However, if the West seeks to deter Russia’s escalating ability to strike power stations and cities en masse, it must cross a self-imposed red-line and provide Ukraine with long-range weapons (namely, ATACMS munitions) and relax its restrictions on targeting within Russia. Additional air defenses will help but, considering Iran’s extensive on-the-ground support, those might very well be insufficient, depending on the scale of Iranian support that Russia receives. 

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).

Tags Afghanistan Crimea Dnipro Donbas Donetsk Iran Iranian drones Kerch Strait incident Kherson military aid to Ukraine Quds Force Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian military Russian nuclear threats Russian war in Ukraine Syria Ukraine Zaporizhzhia

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