When analysing this war people have generally forgotten that Russia is a civilisation power. Apart from USA, it is only Russia which is energy, resource, food and technology surplus with a fully rounded and experienced military. People also forget that by territory it is the largest country. More than any other country, it knows Ukraine best. Writing off a self-sufficient Russia which has initiated this conflict after extensive preparation is premature. From another perspective, the larger war is between US/NATO/EU and Russia. Ukraine is just a proxy which is getting squeezed in the middle. From any perspective , Russia has the USA/NATO/EU combination in a bind. All they have been able to do is sit on the side lines and twiddle their thumbs. After the recent visit of President Biden to Europe , New York Times reports that “Europeans have said they are not willing to bear the consequences of new limits on the Russian energy that they depend on. And Mr. Biden has said he is not willing to commit troops to Ukraine and risk going to war against Russia. There appears to be a coordinated divergence between the European Union and the United States” Sanctions and sanctimony have a long time to go before they are effective, if at all. What they can do in future is to be seen.
However it is important to understand where the Russo Ukrainian war is headed as it meanders along after one month just as River Dnieper does across Ukraine. That is the question in many peoples mind across the globe as statistics of refugees, death, misery and destruction are relayed ceaselessly through a one sided information campaign. The outcome of this war is important to each of us. Initially, when the conflict started on 24 Feb 22, one thought that it will finish in a couple of days. The politico military plan of the initial ‘Shock and Awe’ cycle to hit Ukraine hard, topple its government, ride out the international rage and weather out sanctions, did not work. The second ‘Manoeuvre’ cycle commenced with a multipronged Russian advance into Ukraine accompanied by fire strikes. Its aim was probably to get hold of important cities in a dash. The prime target was obviously Kyiv. By 11 Mar, Russian forces which had laboriously advanced on three thrust lines could only establish shallow enclaves around Kyiv and Kharkiv. Most cities remained out of the Russian grasp. The Russian forces in their build up were strung along highways in tightly packed convoys. Their logistics were messed up. They were most vulnerable at that time. If the Ukrainians had any kind of long range air or ground combat power, the Russian forces were sitting ducks to be decimated. The fact that nothing happened tells any military professional a story. However in the South, Russia made better progress by capturing Kherson and expanding either side of it. They are now on the verge of linking up with the forces in the Donbas area with Mariupol still holding out as shown on the map. The Ukrainians, despite being outnumbered contested all advances spiritedly along all thrust lines and inflicted causalities on the Russians to slow them down. The Russian advance was uncharacteristically slow due to a combination of Ukrainian resistance, poor operational logistics, terrain conditions , poor motivation and training. The frontlines have not changed significantly between 11 and 24 March. In this period, air, tube artillery, rocket, cruise missile and hypersonic missile strikes have been executed by Russia on military targets with attendant collateral damage. These targets included Ukrainian military bases in the West, military infrastructure and defence industry. Also, in this period, the war has slipped into the third operational cycle of ‘Attrition’ where the forces are inflicting damage on each other to the extent possible. Currently the war seems frozen with Russia continuing with selective strikes and reports of local counterattacks by Ukrainian forces. For all purposes it seems to be some sort of a stalemate.
Most analyses in the western world and some of our own military experts have concluded that 1. Russia is nearing culmination of its military power. 2.Russia does not have troops to capture cities and they are spread too thin on the ground. 3. None of the major cities are captured. 4. Firepower alone will not win the war. 5. The Russian offensive prongs cannot link up. 6. Russian logistics systems are incapable of supporting deep operations. 7. Russia cannot reinforce the battle field with fresh effective combat power. 7. The Russian war potential has decreased. The general pronouncement is that the Russian campaign to invade and conquer Ukraine is culminating without achieving its objectives. In other words Russian defeat is being predicted.
All this seems true when one sees it from a conventional or a western viewpoint. This conventional war is being fought unconventionally. This is not a war where traditional infantry attacks are being supported by artillery and air. This is not a war where armour is making a wide cross country sweep to seize large swathes of territory. Hence the need is to see it differently. With the thaw setting in, widespread military manoeuvre is not possible. Hence any major thrusts or moves developing further are not visualised. If they do, they will be road bound. Given the current state of the war and disposition of troops committed in battle, it is reasonable to expect Russian forces have stabilised logistically. If any major expansion of the battle field is not undertaken, the Russian forces will be able to steadily grind down the depleted Ukrainian forces. The Russians have also shown clear determination to carry on the war irrespective of the losses in manpower and equipment. Having paid a heavy price to do so till now, they are unlikely to give up. Also, ever since the second operational cycle commenced and well into the third cycle, Russia, has not attempted to capture any major city by mounting Infantry type assaults after the initial setbacks. They have just surrounded most population centres and are engaging Ukrainian forces at standoff distances. Have we seen any close combat on out TVs? No.
Overall the battle seems static. So what is happening? Where is this business headed? The answer lies in what Clausewitz said “War is politics by other means”. The nuances of what is happening are best understood from a Clausewitzean politico military perspective. The key lies in the four Russian demands to end the war. 1. Ukraine not to be part of NATO, 2.Donetsk and Luhansk to be recognised as independent states, 3.Crimea to be recognised as part of Russia and 4.Demilitarisation of Ukraine. The Russian aim does not seem to be capturing territory or cities as we are all thinking or expecting them to do. These stated political objectives need military matching.
Mr Zelensky has repeatedly said that NATO should either accept Ukraine or say that it is afraid of Russia. He has also indicated at various times that Ukraine has given up on its aim of being part of NATO. Even joining EU is now doubtful. NATO has not shown any inclination of admitting Ukraine into its fold. In fact, it has not shown any inclination of even entering the conflict. It has self-isolated from day one. It is fighting the Ukrainian war till the last Ukrainian. It will be fair to say that the Russian objective that Ukraine will not be part of NATO has been achieved. Beyond that it has also kept NATO away from battle. In fact this has been the start point of the ongoing dialogue between Russia and Ukraine.
Luhansk and Donetsk were as it is out of Ukrainian control even before the war commenced. Crimea has been under Russian control since 2014. In any parlance of realpolitik , possession is 90% of the argument. The local population in these regions does not lean towards Ukraine. Hence accepting Russia’s demands at gun point seems to be inevitable after some face saving clauses during negotiations. However Crimea and Donbas are not contiguous areas. The Russian advance in the South clearly indicates that it is in control of most population centres between Kerson and Donbas barring Mariupol. That is where the Russian Forces are concentrating in the past few days. Also, that is where the Ukrainians are stoutly defending. Whenever Mariupol is taken, Russia will have a sizeable chunk of coastal territory from Kherson to Donbas and Crimea. It will be a strong position from which to negotiate in any deal. Russia will continue to tighten its grip over this area. Ukraine stands to lose a considerable part of its territory when this war ends. Russia has already achieved its second and third objectives.
It is demilitarisation of Ukraine which is the bone of Russian contention. The level of demilitarisation demanded by Russia is unacceptable to Ukraine since it is tantamount to a surrender. Ukraine is currently carrying on with the fight with assistance from NATO and EU nations which is basically in the form of hand held weapons. Heavy weaponry assistance from the West is ruled out unless there is a grave escalation. Hence a major riposte from Ukraine is ruled out. With the terrain conditions inhibiting mobility and with the force levels available, it will not be possible for Russia also to overpower Ukrainian forces in the cities to capture them or in the countryside to effect a complete demilitarisation. It will also be difficult for Russia to manoeuvre into such positions to trap Ukrainian Forces. Hence it is apparent that Russia is using firepower extensively to attain the political objective of what it considers demilitarisation. It appears that, destruction of military infrastructure and assets to a level from where revival is difficult or can be closely monitored implies demilitarisation. That is what Russia is trying to achieve. The pointers to this are that military establishments in West Ukraine which were attacked were attacked by air / cruise missiles are all related to NATO for training or weapon conduits (see map). They were frighteningly close to the Polish border. When that happened Poland developed cold feet and offered its aircraft to NATO. There was not a whimper from it that it will defend its territory if any transgression takes place. Hence, significant NATO supply through Poland is suspect. Russia has also focussed in interior areas where any Ukrainian military capability was known. As part of the task of demilitarising, Russia has been using high-precision weapons to destroy Ukrainian enterprises in the defence industry. Prominent amongst them are the Zorya Gas Turbine and the Antonov Aircraft factory. From available information, it appears that Russia is destroying Ukrainian firepower assets through systematic detection, tracking, and direction of fire by well-coordinated and integrated surveillance. It also seems to be focussing its long range firepower in the form of missiles and artillery on Ukrainian forces wherever they are concentrated, apart from direct engagement in battle even if it is in built up areas and buildings. It is also doubtful if Russia intends to capture any major city and get into Built Up Area ops any more. There are no indications to this effect. From information in open domain, Russia has used hypersonic missiles twice, on Ukrainian ammunitions warehouse(s) and a fuel depot in western Ukraine. This is a clear indication that Russia is prepared to escalate and stay the course. If the reports of the hypersonic missile are correct, Russia has the capability to penetrate NATO A2AD without going nuclear. It has also indicated that it will not hesitate to use the nuclear card if its operations are interfered with.That has left NATO in a tizzy.
Overall the military strategy of Russia matches its political aim. As negotiations are progressing to find a solution, Russia’s readiness to use firepower liberally is a lever to influence talks as attrition of Ukrainian Forces continues. It is also doubtful if Russia will hold on to areas of hostile demography and end up facing an insurgency once a deal is struck. The sensible thing will be to pull out. Similarly, Ukraine is putting up a fight and carrying on with it so that it does not seem as if it has surrendered. It is also putting some cards on the bargaining table with its hit and run tactics and limited counterattacks. As the conflict prolongs, the combat potential of Ukrainian forces will reduce rapidly due lack of reinforcement capability. On the other hand, the Russian forces levels will be sustainable despite losses. Russia might have been clumsy in execution but it has been effective.
There is also lot of discussion that Russia’s overall combat potential has reduced. Just consider this. Russia has not used its air force extensively. Its Navy has not seen battle. It has not committed its Infantry in any major battle. Its battle tactics revolve around standoff engagements by long range vectors and artillery. Its expenditure of cruise and hypersonic missiles does not seem to be of an irreplaceable magnitude. Its losses of armour as reported by the Western media seem to be blown up out of proportion. There is a lot of steam left in the Russian Forces despite all its losses. Wargame it any way. If the war is called off today, Russian conflict termination demands would have been largely achieved.
However, at the end of the day, if one were to conclude; this war is an aimless war which was fully avoidable or done differently. It is also a war where everyone will claim a victory but no one will win and everyone will lose. It is a pity that all leaders involved in this event have landed in a lose – lose situation, where the biggest losers are the people of Ukraine. Further if the situation escalates and crosses the nuclear thresholds, we could all lose. As per latest reports, the talks are progressing. One only hopes that this unwanted war comes to a an early closure. However there is also talk of escalation beyond nuclear thresholds. That is worrisome.
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