Early Military Lessons From The Russo Ukrainian Conflict By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

Also published in First Post

This article is a follow-up on my last article :  Early Gold Standard Non Military Lessons From Ukraine @


Past Russian military forays into Georgia (2008) and Crimea (2014) as also its sustained support of separatists in the Donbas region were immensely successful. Russia repeatedly used overwhelming and unrestricted force to quickly overcome limited or no opposition. From the Russian perspective, the conditions in Ukraine at present were same as in the past. Russia dwarfed Ukraine militarily. NATO was on the side-lines and in no position to intervene. European dependence on Russian energy  would make countries hesitate to do anything significant. Ukrainians appeared bumbling. Time was ripe. The politico military plan was therefore simple.  Hit Ukraine hard and fast. Topple its government. Establish a puppet regime in Kyiv. Ride out the international rage and anger. Prepare for and weather out Western sanctions. Expand Russian influence to the West.  Resurrect Russian superpower status.  Unfortunately in life, as in the case of mutual funds , past performance does not necessarily predict future results. Things have panned out far differently,  since the Ukrainian people willed otherwise. The Russian offensive is entering an unexpected/ unplanned second cycle. This time the focus is Kyiv. The first and a key military lesson of this war is that do not fight future wars on the premises of the last war. The second major issue which has emerged is that the Ukrainians have fought aggressively on ground with their backs to the wall. Russia has been more aggressive from Kremlin!  Having said this , let us analyse the first cycle (till 28 Feb) and draw military lessons out of it.


Well before the actual kinetic battle , Information, Intelligence and cyber wars had begun in the gray zone. Deception and psychological ops were on, full blast. All parties were preparing and planning for conflict. The first cycle of this conflict has been dominated by battlefield transparency, firepower, movement and peoples resistance. To recount the sequence of events, the kinetic battle commenced on 24 Feb at dawn  with heavy firepower delivered through long range guns, rockets, missiles and airstrikes synergistically. These fires targeted cities, airports and military infrastructure across Ukraine. Russia claimed  disablement of Ukraine’s air defences and air bases by destroying many military targets, including airfields and air assets. However what did happen was that, Russia did not carry out follow up air operations to knock out Ukrainian air power or anti-aircraft assets. Till date Ukraine air assets have been able to operate with some degree of freedom and effect.


Later,  on 24 Feb , Russian forces commenced a multipronged advanced into Ukraine by land, sea and air accompanied by fire strikes. Their thrusts were towards Odessa, Kherson, Donbas area, Kharkiv and Kyiv as shown in the map below. They effectively cut off Ukraine from the sea, East and North. However the whole move does not seem to be a smooth combined arms operations since Ukrainians were able to interfere with the advance to slow it down and throw it off gear.  



By the evening of 28 Feb, Russian forces had advanced on three thrust line and had established three distinct  enclaves around  Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson (as shown in the map). Ukrainians,  despite being outnumbered were contesting the Russian advance along all thrust lines. Common citizens have joined in the fight with Molotov Cocktails and AKs. Ground fighting and air strikes were continuing intermittently. Specifics are not known as yet and will emerge later. On 28 Feb there was a slight pause when talks between Russia and Ukraine took place in Gomel ( Belarus). The situation now suggests that Russia is reinforcing its thrust lines and is all set to recommence its offensive. Time to draw lessons from what has happened so far.   

Let us start with Information and Intelligence operations. USA and the West created adequate battlefield transparency through their information operations. This enabled clarity on Russian build up and intent. It also gave adequate intelligence to the Ukrainians regarding Russian dispositions. On the other hand , Russians mounted an equally strong operation to acquire battlefield intelligence and shape the battlefield. They  also used misinformation at strategic and tactical levels to conceal real deployments and actual movement. Russia was able to mount a sudden attack despite being under constant US watch to achieve a high degree of operational surprise. Lesson is that,  future wars will be information and intelligence intensive. Switch to our scenario. Chinese lay a lot of emphasis on ‘Informatised’ battlefields. They are now looking at ‘Intelligentised’ battlefields. On the other hand our experience in Kargil and Eastern Ladakh indicates intelligence failures of a monumentally high order. This is a wakeup call for the Prime Minister, The Defence Minister, NSA, and the (yet to be appointed) CDS( Where is he?). India has a lot of ground to cover. Frankly, I do not see matching urgency or thrust to make our Information and Intelligence apparatus potent. I and others have written about it. I hope someone apprises our prime minister that we cannot be Atamanirbhar without intelligenceUnless we get our act together now, we might not be able to catch up.  


Much is made of the Cyber domain. Both sides have carried out cyber-attacks on each other’s networks( civilian and military), either directly or through proxies/ allies/ supporters.  However, none of the cyber-attacks have made a decisive impact on the battlefield.  Some battlefield adjustments seem to have been made for the cyber effect. It seems marginal in the overall context of violence or outcomes. There is a view that ‘cyber weapons are mostly deployed “short of war” tools, in the grey zone between peace and war. They are cheap, effective and often difficult to trace back to the state behind them in comparison to boots on the ground, making retaliation complicated’. Lot of  sense. Overall, I think armed forces need to rethink realistically the use of the cyber domain in battle. China lays a lot of emphasis on Informatisation and cyberwarfare. They are increasingly network dependent. This is a vulnerability waiting to be exploited. Disrupt Chinese information operations and they are done. As and when the CDS gets appointed, he needs to seriously think about this along with the Service Chiefs. Conversely, own networks need cyber-proofing. In my opinion, the way to go forward is to be light on battlefield networking and data dependence. Better to be strong on communication. Use tactical acumen rather than rely on innate lifeless data. If war plans are kept simple , they will succeed. In all cases, military networks must be standalone and layered enough to be difficult to tamper with. The issue is that while we can have a layered architecture to withstand a cyber-attack what do we do with the Chinese hardware which floods our national networks? Mega problem at hand. Will someone seriously think of cyber Atmanirbharta ? At national levels the issue becomes more complicated and definitely needs attention. However, if we have banned Chinese apps, we can find ways to ban their hardware too.  


This battle has shown the increasing value of precision long range firepower employed in an integrated manner. It belies the Indian theory, propounded myopically,  that Airpower and Long range Artillery are ‘Supporting Actors’ in a three act battlefield play dominated by Infantry alone. Time to wake up out of our slumber. Long-range firepower delivered by rockets, cruise missiles, airplanes and drones in the initial stages opened up space for manoeuvre and created condition for further operations. They shaped the battle field for Russia. However for reasons which will emerge later, Russia could not integrate its ground based firepower with airpower to knock out Ukraine forces. The simple reason was that the Russian Air Force did not carry out adequate offensive sorties for reasons beyond logical comprehension. Was it a case of poor training, faulty planning or inadequate ammunition? In the event, the gaps in firepower planning and delivery opened  a window of opportunity to Ukrainian forces to retaliate. They did. The maxim that firepower must be delivered seamlessly across the length and depth of the battlefield  in an integrated manner is an important lesson for the future, in our context. Further, Ukraine employed  long range firepower in an ambush role innovatively. It appears from reports that Ukrainian forces kept a few Smerch launchers in hides. From these hides they have been able to redeploy and  bring down devastating fire upon advancing Russian columns as and when they entered pre-prepared killing fields. These ambush sites were kept under close observation through CCTVs and drones. Innovative indeed. India needs to study this better. An important aspect which has emerged is that both sides have shown clarity in ensuring tight sensor-shooter linkages. In our context, adopting integrated firepower delivery  will pay handsome dividends in the flat Tibetan plateau where movement is predictable in time, space and locational dimensions and  camouflage is almost non-existent.  Coordinated long range firepower from ground or air, manned or unmanned, with suitable battlefield transparency and close observation (manned or unmanned) will paralyse the Chinese. On the other hand the Chinese firepower will not be that effective since on our side of the LAC ,  the terrain is relatively  more broken and steep.  However it must be noted the Chinese operational concepts lay large emphasis on precision firepower. Our terrain hugging deployments must offset this. The Chinese  would also be studying this battle closely to draw their lessons. I have dwelt on various issues regarding firepower in a series of articles @ I do hope someone who matters reads it. The dismaying issue is that  far from integrating our sensors and shooters and force multiplying them through other means, we have been involved in Inter Service and Intra Service wilful divorces of these resources. We are in the danger of having long-range firepower in Dhritarashtra mode. What is worse, when the future lies in extending ranges of firepower volumetrically, Indian Army has been reducing its requirement of long range rockets! I have written about this adequately. Overall,  another  major lesson from this phase is that numerically inferior forces can tie down large forces through on ground innovation.  This is something we should never lose sight of in the Sino Indian situation. 


The multipronged offensive carried out by the Russians looks great on paper. However each prong is widely separated from the other without mutual support. All axes lead to independent objectives. It could be argued that the three prongs inherently give a degree of success with at least one of them likely to succeed. The question is that will they be able to achieve the larger aim of Russia- regime change?  In addition, the resistance put up by the Ukrainians indicates that the Russians need to do corridor protection on all the axes, to protect the body and tail of the axes. Resultantly, the effective combat potential at the tip of the arrow appears weak. That is borne out by the fact that the Russians had to take a tactical pause before resuming their offensive. This time around,  they are clear that they want Kyiv and are heading there in strength. As a fall back,  they might settle for Kharkiv, which is being hammered by very heavy fire assaults.  However, getting into a built up area the size of Kyiv is daunting. I also suspect that the Russians might be near their culmination point as far as troops are concerned. They started with 150,000 troops which could translate into an equivalent of about a Corps with four-five divisions and logistics support elements as we understand it. Assuming that they have had to employ a division each along each thrust line, they are now presumably left with about two divisions which they seem to be putting into Kyiv and Karkhiv. Will it be enough? The other indication is that when a side starts waving a nuclear card before achieving anything significant there is a hole in your plans. Russia is now also looking at Belarus to provide additional troops. Indicates that Russia is stretched for troops. Tight situation indeed. The next 24-48 hours will be critical. If Kyiv does not fall in that time, the Russians will spend a long time there. They might eventually overpower Ukraine forces. If  and when  they do, they will realise that it is much easier to conquer a country than to hold it. It  is doubtful that the Ukrainian people would accept a puppet regime. The Russian gamble could degenerate into a long and sapping insurgency fully aided and abetted by EU. The macro lesson from this phase is that selection and maintenance of aim and concentration of force are important principles of war and hard to ignore. Overall, the Russian three pronged plan did not either support their political aim nor was it concentrated to achieve it. The plan was designed to achieve multiple aims  based on ‘Past Performance’!   


The Russo-Ukrainian war is entering a decisive and critical phase. The popular view which is emerging is that Mr Putin and the Russian Army might win the battle but lose the war. When this war gets over , it is to be seen as to who will retain his job as a politician – Putin or Zelensky? The transformation of one from popular to isolated and the other from isolated to popular is as stark as chalk to cheese. The result seems forgone. However let us wait for time to roll and reveal the future. There might be more surprises to learn from. 



7 responses to “Early Military Lessons From The Russo Ukrainian Conflict By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. Well picked and very cogently related to our security realities, General. Thank you

  2. Great illuminating article, Sir. Hope that you will also guide our CDS on concrete ideas on cyber-security and information warfare. Regards.

  3. ❤️🇮🇳🇷🇺

  4. Russia is a under trained army, not in war fare, and on the battlefield, However i feel these guys spend much less time on drawing boards. They should have first few days pounded ukraine by air force, from sea ( very important in this theatre, drones, long range missiles as they dis on ISIS from caspian sea and then led their panzer columns in ukraine. But these are theoretical assumptions without input on there inventories,supplies, strategic location.

  5. This is the first time I learn about this author through PGURU's interview. His presentation is targeted for the general understanding. But I wish that the expertise is being availed by our military as appropriate measures. Further, there are some concerns too expressive, so that they may reach the enemies.

  6. Gen. Sir A mechanism where by the analysis and inputs on lessons of war planning, dynamics and strategies by ex retired top brass reaches the highest top Ears of the current administration like CDS,RAW,Doval, Rajnath Singh, & PM is of most importance and essence. A meeting/method to filter, induct and implement to reinforce preparedness. Hope it happens.

  7. Great article by the General. My two cents, Indian Govt is spending millions and millions on defense. How about setting aside just $10 million every year and send bright boys and girls who are computer savvy to learn high quality hacking, cyber security and cyber 'Insecurity”,etc from Israel, USA, Holland, Taiwan etc. Some of these smaller countries are way ahead in hacking field. Our boys and girls should be sent there to learn but have to come back and work in and for India for five years as civilian support to Army, Navy, AirForce,and for Indian sleuth agency. This way we can tackle the ccp who are waiting to inflict damage to India and break into chinese cyber fire wall. Chinese cyber wall is porous not soild as one thinks or assumes. It can be breached.

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