Follow-up Lessons From the Russo Ukrainian Conflict by Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

Previous articles on this subject are Early Gold Standard Non Military Lessons and Early Military Lessons. If you have not read them, I would suggest you do so . It will give you a better perspective. You might also like to see the short video on Day 12 update


Having captured Kherson,  the Russian military is steadily expanding either side along the Black Sea Coast.  It is moving closer to the Odessa in the West and Mariupol in the East. When it gains control of the Black Sea Coast, Ukraine will be cut off from the sea. Russians are attempting to encircle Kyiv and Ukrainians are battling them to prevent it. The long armed convoy approaching Kyiv from the north remains stalled and has come under attack by Ukrainian forces at places. Kharkiv is also witnessing to and fro fighting. Russians also seem to be targeting power plants (including nuclear plants) to gain control over  Ukraine’s electricity generation which will enable them control the country later. The second cycle of Russian operations in Ukraine have visibly slowed down and are now in the grind phase. 


In the meanwhile, Mr Putin has made his intentions clear by messaging to Ukrainians that they might lose their statehood . He has also stated that the stiff sanctions imposed on Russia amount to a “declaration of war” and imposing a No Fly Zone over Ukraine as sought fervently by Mr Zelenskyy would be considered as combatant action. NATO has responded by stating that it does not intend to impose any sort of No Fly Zone. While the Ukrainians are putting up stiff resistance all over, it is now clear that they are outnumbered and Russia will slowly and steadily gain military ascendency. However Russian Forces have faced protests in almost every city taken over by them. On Day 12, the increasing flow of refugees indicates a looming humanitarian crisis as attempts are being made at a ceasefire to allow safe passage for civilians. It  is predictable that the military affair will be long drawn, and the geopolitical knots will tighten. Time to draw more lessons.  


In Feb 1943, the third battle of Kharkhov was fought between the Germans and Russians. It is  famously known as Fd Marshal Von Manstein’s  ‘Backhand Plan’.  Von Manstein wanted to attack Kursk immediately after his success.  If he had done so, he might have got a walkover and a different history would have been written. However Von Manstein could not do so due to  ‘Rasputitsa’, the term for the mud of spring, whose impact is most felt in March as the snow melts. Travel by road in Russia and Ukraine is difficult during this time. Cross country move is almost impossible due to boggy and mucky conditions. It was not until Jul that the Germans could undertake Op Citadel (also known as the Battle of Kursk) the greatest tank battle ever fought.  These battles were fought in the areas of Kiev -Kharkiv-Voronezh. The same areas where the current war is raging. In a larger sense, the Germans lost out in Russia due to inability of their logistics to cope with winter.  Not much has changed!  


All this is well known to the Russians better than most of us. Yet they commenced the offensive on 24 Feb. Very clearly, the intent as I had written earlier was to Hit Ukraine hard and fast. Enforce a deal as per Russian demands or topple its government. Establish a puppet regime in Kyiv. Ride out the international rage and anger. Prepare for and weather out Western sanctions. This was to be quick short affair and never meant to be a long campaign. The Plan A stumbled. Very clearly , the Russians did not have a Plan B to achieve their original ‘shock and awe’ based quick result. That plan should have hinged around use of air power, which was left to idle. Is it due to faulty planning or a policy of using minimum force? We can know only after the whole affair is over. The Russians seemed to have jumped to a Plan C which they did not have. The Plan C is the extended war which is unfolding in unfavourable weather and terrain conditions. The heavily mechanised Russian Forces are road bound and getting stuck due to bottlenecks created by blown up bridges or ambushes. Resultantly, their forward lines are not getting strengthened/ reinforced and they are unable to isolate Kyiv. Their major saving grace is long range firepower, which they are using liberally to keep the offensive going, even if it is at crawl speed. Very major lessons indeed  on operational planning and operational logistics. Contrast this with the way we built up our forces to mirror Chinese deployment in Eastern Ladakh even when the roads were not fully open and that too under hostile conditions of weather , environment and enemy.  Makes me feel proud. 


A major lesson which is repeating itself is that you could have  politico military convergence at the top. However one needs detailed operational intelligence, planning, training, motivation and fundamental capability  to execute such diverse and complicated operations. The Russian forces seem to be coming a bit short on this.  On the other hand, the Ukrainians seem to be fighting this war with a plan based on known terrain conditions. Their motivation levels are rising with each success and are proving to be a match for the Russians. Thus far Ukrainian grit and pluck has offset Russian force superiority. However , the culminating point of Ukrainians seems near. Once that is reached ,  it will degenerate into a guerrilla operation. Combine this with the thaw factor.  Thereafter operations are going to progress slowly. People will start looking for exit options.


In any war, the people must be with you to win. It seems that Russia did not prepare either the Russian or the Ukrainian people regarding their intent or the consequences. As a result, Russia is facing people related friction within and outside. Considering that people to people bonds are strong between the two countries, Russia’s failure to address this important factor might make a difference. On the other hand Russia seems to has triggered nationalistic motivation in Ukraine which seems to have united the fractiously divided nation. The  heavy right wing fascist element in Ukrainian  polity has now got into the mainstream of the war effort. All the fault lines seem to have cemented over in the face of the Russian offensive and the humanitarian disaster which is evolving. The people factor keeps coming to the fore and I can not help but keep remembering Tibet in our context. We really need to do something to maximise on the Tibet factor at the cost of irritable repetition. 


In the battle of narratives, the Ukrainian and Western narratives are prevailing and have swamped the Russian narrative into irrelevance. The narratives are influencing people and governments to produce a desired outcome or course of action. Resultantly, an evil Russia vs an innocent Ukraine backed by the holy West is the popular perception emerging though the reality could be otherwise. These narratives are flooding  the ‘Information Domain’ in which this war is being fought. However an important part of this domain is media through which these narratives and Information is being relentlessly conveyed. When seen in this context, media is now an important tool of war.  Social media being  a high speed , fast track subset of the larger media is producing instant results. It has become an operational  influence enabler. India must develop a media policy to cater for a block out/ manipulation by International/ western based social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp , Instagram et al . These could twist our narrative or propagate an alternate narrative not suited to us when the time comes. The important lesson is that India needs its own media independent of outside influence. Needs a very serious thought. 


There is a critical and important strategic reality which has come forth. USA, NATO and EU have  been enticing Ukraine into their fold since 2006. That is the start and root point of this conflict. Yet, when the time has come, they are standing by and watching the Russians roll in. The general consensus in informed strategic circles in USA and EU is that they have led Ukraine up the primrose path and left it unprepared on its own to face the music. USA, NATO and EU will fight this battle till the last Ukrainian. It is similar to Imran Khan’s fight for Kashmir till the last Kashmiri. The major lesson for India is that we have to re-calibrate our expectations in our strategic relationship with USA. Let us keep our expectation levels  low so that our disappointments are also low. In any analysis, ultimately we are on our own and we need to strengthen ourselves to be able to handle all situations. Never forget that USA has a poor track record of not being there when its friends are in a fix. The Ukrainian situation just reinforced this reality. Otherwise we will face the same fate as Afghans or Iraqis or the Pakis. This does not detract from the fact that it is in our national interest to be aligned with USA strategically at this point of time. 


So far I have not delved much into the geopolitical aspects and stuck to the military aspects. However there is a huge geopolitical lesson coming out as this war has progressed. What does winning or losing constitute in this war? An answer this question has also the lesson embedded in it. Hence I will attempt even if it is way above my depth. 


USA has been instigating Ukraine to come out of the Russian sphere of influence by surreptitiously dangling a carrot of NATO membership which has not been offered formally since a decade. In doing it has ultimately provoked Russia into a war which it did not need. When war has now broken out, they have remained on the side-lines. However it has prompted EU states to hike their defence budgets which will get ploughed back to its Military Industrial Complex.  It has also revitalised unity in NATO which was fraying. It is obviously winning this war even without firing a shot. In fact it has won by making others fire shots. At the other end, South Korea and Japan have started thinking of allowing deployment of nuclear assets on their territory aka US weapon systems. USA will laugh all the way to the bank while China will grapple with the changed nuclear environment in the West Pacific. Sun Tsu needs to write a new treatise on how to win wars and fatten bank balances by making others fight! 


Russia has undertaken this war since it feels that its core security interests are threatened if Ukraine joins NATO or EU. It is systematically and demonstratively reducing parts of Ukraine to rubble. It will force some deal out of Ukraine otherwise it will not get out. If one examines Russian history, that kind of resolve is evident. Any mutually acceptable deal means that Ukraine will remain within its sphere of influence. For a long time to come, whenever Ukrainians think of NATO, the rubble and destruction left behind by Russia will flash by. All the issues of sanctions by the West will recede once any deal comes through. Remember Russia is an energy surplus nation in an energy deficient world. Overall Russia will not lose. 


Where does it leave Ukraine? Ukraine was a divided nation as it is. It will take a long time for these divisions to heal. Its people are going through a humanitarian disaster which every TV channel shows us daily. When these people come back they will see rubble. View it from any direction. The losers in this game  are the people of Ukraine. Today Zelenskyy might look like hero. Tomorrow he could be castigated as a villain. An astute leader of a small and weak nation takes his people into safety, security and prosperity through wise compromise with bigger powers. Has he done that? You decide. 


At the end of this ramble, I would like to reiterate what I had written some time back.  There are lessons to be learnt from Russia to make our well-publicised ‘Neighbourhood  First’ policy a success. To me,  that is the most important lesson of this war. Read my article again. Reflect on the diagram below.  Draw your conclusions. 



3 responses to “Follow-up Lessons From the Russo Ukrainian Conflict by Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. Sir, the US is facing imperial hubris and increased defense spending by Europe, especially Germany, could realistically result in a relapse within a decade or two to western europes atavistic tendency towards internecine warfare. This is the real danger to the world. The US should look towards limiting NATO to the only remaining reason for the organizations continued existence, which is to keep the peace between the western european nations.

  2. Sir vg art. Please write a article on Neighborhood Policy, your chart is good but pl verbalise.

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