Ukraine’s “iron general” is a hero, but not a star

Tanks and armored vehicles fired at each other in open fields and small villages, reminiscent of the most gruesome battles of World War II. But the use of drones to annihilate logistics columns or adjust the fire of Ukrainian artillery batteries miles from the front also offers a glimpse of a mode of combat that analysts have been talking about for years, but which is not used. than now in Ukraine.

A former US special forces officer, who has seen the change in Ukrainian special operations forces over the years, said that in 2020, Ukrainian commandos “look, smell and taste like Western SoF”.

The searing, daily combat experience in the Donbass over the past eight years has meant that those troops closest to combat have seen firsthand how essential individual initiative in small unit combat is.

These young soldiers and their officers “were the ones who had been burned by the experience and [who] realized “hey, we can’t hand everything over to the general before we make a decision,” said retired US Army Colonel Liam Collins, who worked as the chief aide to retired four-star John Abizaid who was then president. Barack Obama was sent to Kyiv to advise Ukrainian military leaders from 2016 to 2018.

This combat and NATO’s practical training in western Ukraine has produced a new generation of small unit leaders and non-commissioned officers who can think and act independently. The changes weren’t immediate, but the hard-won knowledge from regular skirmishes accelerated a “cultural shift at the battalion level,” Collins said. “A whole generation has figured out how to lead, and I think the generals have figured out that it works.”

A modern lieutenant general

Zaluzhnyy said the Ukrainian military is filled with young professional soldiers and future leaders. “They are completely different people – not like us when we were lieutenants. These are new shoots that will completely change the army in five years. Almost everyone knows a foreign language well, works well with gadgets, they are well read,” he told ArmyInform. “New sergeants. They are not scapegoats, as in the Russian army for example, but real helpers who will soon replace the officers.

“We have already started this movement, and there is no turning back,” he added. “Even society won’t allow us to return to the military in 2013.”

The hit-and-run tactics used by Ukrainian soldiers this year have had a staggering impact, blunting the Russian military machine in very real ways. Of the 120 tactical battalion groups Russia pushed into Ukraine on February 24, 40 of them – including those that led the assault on kyiv and Chernihiv – retreated to Belarus to refit.

As many as 29 of these groups are currently unable to fight due to massive casualties at the hands of small teams of Ukrainians armed with anti-armour weapons supplied by the West. It could take up to four weeks for some of these units to refit and be ready to deploy to eastern Ukraine, a Western official confirmed to POLITICO.

The thousands of Javelins, Stingers, Panzerfausts and other anti-armour and aerial missiles supplied by NATO nations have become a staple of social media feeds, spawning memes, t-shirts and music videos, but cultural shifts in within the Ukrainian army have arguably made a greater impact on the battlefield. The NATO exercises were a key part of the hard work to weed out all traces of ‘sovok’ thinking – the Soviet mentality that left a legacy of corruption and complacency, and which persisted for almost a quarter of century after independence.

“Their infantry, their artillery, their innovative skills and their ability to use drones and synchronize them were quite impressive,” said a former American officer who made several trips to Ukraine to advise the army and who requested the anonymity to talk about the formation mission. “Their special forces and their airborne forces were excellent. There was a part of me that when I got there made me think they were more Soviet than even the Russian army. But over time, you could see the change.

Melnyk, the air force officer turned analyst, said successes on the battlefield, including in the northern suburbs of kyiv, were a direct result of military modernization.

“NATO tactics [and] the training was adapted to Ukrainian realities – and that’s why it produced quite an impressive result,” Melnyk said. “We saw Russians moving these huge columns…it looks like WWII tactics. Instead, the Ukrainians used the advantage – they knew the terrain. They have these mobile units and hit and hit.

Bars, not stars

Zaluzhnyy’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief was itself part of a larger overhaul of the Ukrainian military. Zelenskyy appointed him to the top operational post in July 2021. This follows a major shake-up at the Defense Ministry and coincided with a restructuring of the army’s uniformed command to separate operations from political positions, somewhat as the clear definition of the US military. duties and responsibilities.

“The president wants to see synergy between the Defense Ministry and the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” Zelenskyy’s press secretary Sergey Nikiforov said at the time. “Unfortunately, we don’t see such synergy. We see conflicts.

Zaluzhnyy would later summarize his role in succinct terms. “Now, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, I am responsible for the combat readiness, training and use of the armed forces,” he told Radio Svoboda during the interview. September.

Since the large-scale Russian attack began in late February, Zaluzhnyy has avoided most interviews and made relatively few public appearances while making occasional public statements via his Facebook page.

Some of these messages are short operational updates, about downing Russian fighters or destroying a column of Russian tanks. Others are just quick messages, thanking military doctors, for example, or inspiring Ukrainian troops and the public.

March 22: “Ukrainian armed forces are the shield of Europe”

March 27: “The price of freedom is high. Keep that in mind!”

April 2: “The Ukrainians have forgotten to be afraid. Our goal is to win. »

But other messages are lengthy, including a Sunday reading of his phone conversation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, with whom he has been in regular contact.


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