Early “Gold Standard” Non Military Lessons From Ukraine By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

Discussion with Aadi Achint on the subject. 
Also published in First Post

The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict is a truly modern multi domain operation in progress which opened with a Russian multi-pronged offside into Ukraine.  The first cycle of the war is over. As the kinetic conflict enters the next cycle, Russian initial thrusts and enclaves formed thereof are as shown in the map below. Apparently Russia is making a bid to reach Kyiv to topple the current Government and install its own. Simultaneously it is also consolidating its hold over Crimea and Russian dominated Donbas areas. Initially we were treated to the shock and awe of the Russian blitz. Many predicted that it was game, set and match to Russia. Ukrainians have thought otherwise. The steel and the power of the underdog is showing though. There is a lot ahead. While one can analyse this situation geopolitically and hazard a guess as to where this  conflict is headed, I am headed elsewhere. What is there for us in India to learn? I conflated the Sino-Indian logjam, some aspects of the Afghanistan situation and the events so far. Some ‘gold standard’ lessons are tumbling out. India will do well to absorb them. In this part I am not touching upon military lessons which will follow in the next part. 


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The aggressive  cut and thrust of autocracies in conflict is on display. By nature autocracies will always appear that they are the stronger party and will get a walkover. Democracies in comparison appear bumbling, incoherent and weak. Given time, autocracies appear vulnerable as democracies become resilient. We witnessed this feature in the last century when Hitler was overcome by the Allies. We witnessed it in Eastern Ladakh when it seemed that China was walking all over us till we got our act together and occupied Kailash Range and made them retreat. We are witnessing it in Ukraine where a democratically elected popular ‘leader’ is rallying his ‘people’ around. Democracies have immense depth and power.  When unleashed it can move mountains. India has this great inner strength. We have to find ways to unleash it again and again and again as we have done it before in our history from the times of Mahabharta. Let us believe in ourselves.


In any analysis, no one has come forward to help Ukraine in battle. Sanctions and other promised help from NATO or EU will take time to take effect. In any case the effect of sanctions are doubtful beyond a point for which Russia seems to be well prepared to hedge.  Arms and other weaponry being provided to Ukraine will take time to hit the front lines. Ultimately, it is Ukrainians who have to fight it out. The major lesson is that nations have to be prepared to face any situation on their own. They must train and equip their Armed forces well,  to face up to perceived threats. India is in a similar position. USA, QUAD and others will not bail us out when the chips are down. In China and Pakistan we have very dangerous adversaries. There is no way but for India to prepare adequately for war on its own and fight on its own. Luckily we have capable armed forces. We need to arm them and self-sufficient through Atmanirbharta. Atmanirbharta is a strategic national requirement. Each and every one of us must make it work. We have the right to criticise it but we must all work for it. personally, I am doing the best I can.   


A major lesson of this conflict is that economies do not fight wars. Militaries do. If we have a motivated military with its people behind it, it will win irrespective of its economy. Hence nurture it and  equip it well. This ties up with the previous lesson. The size of armies do not matter. The ability to deploy them in the given situation on ground matters. Their ability to fight on ground with what they have matters even more. From an economic, military strength and capability perspective Russia outmatches Ukraine. However on ground, things might pan out differently. Chinese economy might be thrice ours. Their comprehensive national power might be zillion times ours. Their armed forces could be better equipped with latest weaponry and better logistic depth. However what matters is the ability to put what you can on ground to fight in the unforgiving Himalayan terrain which places severe  limits on what one can do. Exploitation of ground by India will pay handsome dividends. I have often repeated this in my analyses.  Are we exploiting this factor?  Yes. Can we do better? Of course!         


When ‘people’ fight for their land it is difficult for any aggressor to succeed. Ukrainians are out on the street to fight for their land, and it will hereafter be difficult for Russia to succeed. They might succeed militarily but might be unable to do so politically. We saw that in Afghanistan also. Major lesson for us. How do we convert Tibet into an Afghanistan cum Ukraine for the Chinese in their next misadventure? There are two aspects to this. Tibet must be made into an alien land for PLA to fight from. The reluctant mindset of the PLA rank and file must be reinforced so that they know they are in an alien land, far from their homeland. On the other hand as and when we mount a riposte or quid pro quo, how do we exploit this ‘people’ factor. In an eventuality , should a reverse occur, how do we enmesh PLA in a long lasting hybrid conflict which they must lose. It is high time that India starts thinking seriously on this issue. A strong experienced professional Armed Force fighting with the people will demur even the most fool hardy communist. To this end, Tibet has to be converted into zone of ambiguity during peace and a zone of uncooperative hostility during war for the Chinese and PLA. If Xinjiang can be thrown in, PLA will be in a fix. India needs to do some hard thinking on this.    


Leaders matter in war. Mr Putin comes across as a cold calculating aloof leader who has planned his moves and prepared accordingly with clear-cut objectives regarding the outcomes of this conflict he initiated. However from all reports it is also emerging that his own population might not be fully with him. Mr Zelensky on the other hand seemed unsure in the beginning. He is however leading bravely from the front. When offered a ‘Ghani’ like exit by USA, he has galvanised his people by simply saying that he ‘needs ammunition and not a ride’. When will USA ever learn to back the right horse or make the appropriate offer? Getting back to track. When brave leaders stay put with their people on the streets, to lead from the front victory is assured. The least I will say is that Putin has his hands full. Take your mind back. A cold calculating Xi Jinping unleashed Eastern Ladakh on us. Many of our own pundits wrote us off then. International commentators were having a field day. At that time our PM went to Leh and the RM went to Lukung to be with our troops and raise their morale. It paid dividends. I wrote about it then and I write about it now. We are fortunate to have the current leadership, despite all its shortcomings. To me , between the Indian and Chinese leadership, it is my own which is stronger and I am proud of them. India needs to maximise this.


The power of Intelligence and Information in a modern-day battlefield is doubly reinforced in this conflict. US intelligence and information operations uncovered each move by the Russians well in time. If heeded in time by Ukraine, the situation might have been different. All in all, the USA information operations headed off the Russian offensive to a large extent and there were no great surprises. Their strategic intelligence was on spot.  On the other hand, Russian information and intelligence operations enabled a degree of operational  surprise besides enabling them to prepare the battle field well. Russia could mask its tactical intent and plan from everyone. The real surprise is Ukrainian information operations. Without much fanfare their President could communicate with his population and rally them around. His communication ability though social media short clips is something to really learn from. The next phase of information operations has begun – the battle of narratives. We will see it unfold slowly. Early days and will not comment further. Overall this conflict will teach us more about the increasing value of Information Operations in war. India has to get its act together. China and Pakistan will come hammer and tongs at us during the next conflict situation. Forget the next conflict they are already at it as highlighted  in my last article @ Let me leave you with a thought – India is behind the curve on Information Operations. Work ahead for the nation.


This conflict is taking the world into a far different place than where it was a few days back. It has shaken up a somnambulant Europe.  Geopolitical equations have entered a state of high flux not seen after the end of cold war. Great changes are afoot. I do hope someone in the Indian hierarchy , especially in the armed forces  has started tracking issues. Incidentally, China has already started analysing this operation as reported by SCMP. They feel that China’s military can learn from the strengths and failures of Russia’s tactics in Ukraine. Ah ha. They are already talking of Russian failures! Get the drift?

In a few days from now we will get a clearer military picture to draw lessons from . Hence please wait for 48 hours. Till then, think over as to what is Pakistan’s take away from all this.  Zahoor’s cartoons in Dawn say more than my words. 


One response to “Early “Gold Standard” Non Military Lessons From Ukraine By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. Sir, how do we know at this early stage that Ukraine will “succeed” ? Even the definition of “success” is moot at this point and dependent on Russias objectives. Will a rump western Ukraine even if it retains Kiev be a success for Ukraine ? And, how do we know for sure “all” Ukrainians are with Ukraine? All we are hearing is one sided propaganda on western controlled msm & social media. Ukraine itself is an artificial construct of the Soviets in the early 20th century and may just revert back to its original division between Russia and whoever is to the west of Russia. Why wouldn't this be the most stable long term solution ? The alternative I see is “Ukrainization” of Russia and I don't see that serving the cause of anyone but the West who have been the aggressors since at least Napoleon, if not longer. I would posit the balance that Russia has provided, as much as the “soft occupation” by the US of western europe, is what has kept them -western europe- from lapsing back to their atavistic nature and endangering the whole world.

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