Clausewitz in his classic treatise ‘On War’ had stated that ‘war is continuation of politics by other means’. Mao has also famously stated that ‘ War is politics with bloodshed and politics is war without bloodshed’. A common fundamental to these sayings is that nations go to war over a core political reason/difference/ disagreement. Eventually, the success and failure of prosecution of warring nations will be judged by the fact that if the political aim(s) for which war has been prosecuted has been achieved. A corollary to this is that, even if success has been achieved, was the cost of that success worth it? The ongoing Russo Ukrainian war needs evaluation on these basic cold metrics.
What was the core reason for Russia to invade Ukraine? Russia repeatedly expressed that Ukrainian aspiration to join NATO was its major security concern. NATO drills or deployment of weapons systems in close vicinity to Russian territory constitute a stated red line. The situation for Russia is analogous to threat posed to India if PLA troops or weapons are deployed in the Terai region of the Indo-Nepal border due to any Sino-Nepal arrangement. The US, on its part pushed for eastward expansion of NATO to contain Russia. Containment of Russia remains a goal of USA so that it does not revive into a major power like the old USSR. After all Russia is still the largest country territorially. It is not only self-sufficient but a net exporter of technology, energy, food grains and many critical metals. Ukraine on its part has been wanting to join NATO and EU ever since the US supported colour revolution of 2014.
This war has been dominated by an overload of biased information and propaganda from the Western media. The Russian viewpoint has been muffled. Russian motives have been vilified and losses have been exaggerated. On the other hand Ukrainian actions have been glorified. The overall picture being painted is that Russia is losing the war and has suffered crippling losses. The Indian media has largely followed the cues of Western media and reported the war accordingly. On the other hand, the Indian government has maintained a largely neutral stance in this conflict. The dichotomy between a neutral Government and a western biased Indian media has been apparent. Hence any analysis by Indian media has been less than objective.
Russia started this war based on its past military experience in Georgia (2008) and Crimea (2014) which were immensely successful. It expected that the threat of overwhelming force would quickly overcome limited or no opposition. It did not work. Russia also used the nuclear card to warn NATO not to interfere in the conflict. It worked. NATO has remained side-lined throughout the conflict.
The Russo-Ukrainian war has been prosecuted in four phases. The first ‘Shock and Awe’ phase commenced on 24 Feb 22 to hit Ukraine hard, topple its government, ride out the international rage and weather out sanctions. One expected the war to finish quickly. When that did not happen, the second ‘Manoeuvre’ phase commenced 72 hours later with a multipronged Russian advance into Ukraine. Its aim was probably to get hold of important cities including Kyiv in a dash. By 11 Mar, Russian forces laboriously advanced on three thrust lines to establish shallow enclaves around Kyiv and Kharkiv. Most cities remained out of grasp. The Russian logistics were messed up. Their forces were strung along highways in tightly packed convoys and most vulnerable. The Ukrainians could have decimated the Russian forces. They could not, since by then, the Ukrainian forces were depleted. However in the South, Russia made better progress by capturing Kherson and expanding either side of it and were on the verge of linking up with the forces in the Donbas area through Mariupol. The Ukrainians, despite being outnumbered contested all advances spiritedly. They inflicted causalities on the Russians to impede them. Ukrainian resistance, poor operational logistics, terrain conditions , poor motivation and training considerably slowed the Russian advance. However it triggered a wave of refugees out of Ukraine as also considerable internal displacement.
By the end of the second phase (around 10 Mar) , three political developments had taken place. Firstly, NATO, categorically announced a policy of direct non-interference in the conflict. Secondly, as international calls for ending the conflict grew, Mr Putin spelt out four conditions to end the war. These were: Ukraine not to be part of NATO, Donetsk and Luhansk to be recognised as independent states, Crimea to be recognised as part of Russia and demilitarisation of Ukraine. From this it could be assumed that from the outset, the Russian aim was not to capture territory or cities as many expected them to do. The third factor was that, Mr Zelensky realised that NATO would not come to his aid despite his appeals. He dropped Ukraine’s demand for joining NATO. The first war termination objective of Russia had been met. This set the stage for negotiations to commence. Militarily, it was also clear that the ‘Rasputitsa’ or the mud thaw would severely inhibit manoeuvre and that operations would be confined to paved roads.
In the third ‘Attrition’ phase of the war (11- 26 March approx), frontlines remained static and forces inflicted damages on each other. In this period, Russia executed air, artillery, rocket, missile, cruise missile and hypersonic missile strikes on military targets. These targets included Ukrainian military bases in the West, military infrastructure and defence industry. Ukraine carried out selective counterattacks. For many purposes it was portrayed that the Russians were ground to a halt and that Ukraine had stalemated Russia. However, in this period Russia consolidated its hold on the areas between Crimea and Donbas. It has tightened its grip on Mariupol and not likely to give it up despite Ukrainian resistance. With a contiguous belt in its control, Russia will insist on second and third demands being accepted. In any territorial dispute, possession is 90 % of the argument. This area has been out of Ukrainian control since 2014. It is unlikely that Ukraine will be able to wrest this area from Russia.
Simultaneously, Russia has been demilitarising Ukraine systematically. Military establishments in West Ukraine from where aid can flow or were used for training with NATO have been attacked by air / cruise missiles. Russia has targeted all interior areas where any Ukrainian military capability existed – fuel dumps, ammunition bases, logistics bases and military infrastructure. Russia has used high-precision weapons to destroy Ukrainian defence industry. This has been acknowledged by Ukraine as well. Russia has also carried out two hypersonic strikes to reinforce its signal to keep NATO out. Inputs indicate that Russia is continuing to destroy Ukrainian firepower assets and other forces systematically by using long range firepower wherever they are concentrated. In this period, NATO has categorically stated that it will not be in a position to give tanks, missiles, fighter aircraft , guns or heavy weaponry to Ukraine. NATO assistance to Ukraine has been limited to light shoulder fired weapons. In the intervening period it is clear that the Ukraine’s membership of EU is a chimera. In this phase refugee outflow and internal displacement continued to increase while talks between Russia and Ukraine made fitful progress.
On 26 Mar, Russia announced that the combat capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces were substantially reduced. Henceforth they would concentrate their main efforts on the liberation of Donbas. Hence the Russians have begun the fourth phase of ‘Redeployment and Consolidation’ before a final settlement with Ukraine can be arrived. In this phase, Russia has started withdrawing from areas around Kyiv and the northeast. Simultaneously it has continued to strike targets in the south Ukraine. The overall way things are progressing is as I had predicted in my article Where is the Russo-Ukrainian War Headed of 22 Mar 2022.
There is a lot of commentary in the Western media that Russia’s overall combat potential has reduced and that it is near its culmination point. To put things in perspective 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 operational tactics revolved around standoff engagements. The number of cruise and hypersonic missiles fired do not seem to be of an irreplaceable magnitude. If the loss of life of its soldiers, losses of armour and aircraft, are as reported by the Western media, Russian Forces would have been non-operational by now. However while there is no doubt that Russia has suffered a lot of losses, it might not have reached its culmination point. The fact is also that Russian Forces have shown poor training and morale. Their overall planning and logistics capability left much to be desired. In balance it can be said that the measure of Russian losses cannot be their inability to capture cities which they did not intend to do so or the success of Ukrainian forces cannot be occupation of areas vacated by Russia. Narrative building in this war has been highly imaginative.
If one carries out a dispassionate assessment one will be forced to conclude that the Russians are nearing the war termination objectives which Mr Putin had announced in the second week of March. They have undoubtedly suffered heavy losses in achieving their objectives. A major factor which has emerged is that this war has not been a military purists delight. It has not been the 5G war which all military theorists were predicting would be the ‘Future of War’. It has also not been the war of manoeuvre or the war of close combat or attacks which one is used to. It was a war of deep battle with shallow objectives in which unfashionable ‘attritional’ firepower dominated.
A major issue to focus is the larger security concern of Russia to ensure that Ukraine is neutral and NATO does not deploy its weapons on its borders. After this war, I doubt if there is anyone who says that NATO will come anywhere near Russia or if any country in the vicinity of Russia will lean towards NATO. Far from containing Russia, NATO has left adequate room for Russian influence to expand. To that extent NATO has lost. It has also shown that it is not dependable. The noveau term ‘Ukrained’ indicates so.
From a military point of view Russia might be achieving its objectives and can tout victory. However from hereon, it will be an uphill battle economically notwithstanding abundancy of its natural resources, food grain surpluses and technological prowess. It has gained a hostile neighbour which will harass it for times to come. Russia might not achieve the security and peace it wants. Also, Russia will have to continue to face the reality or the narrative battles of war crimes, mass graves and crimes against humanity which are beginning to unfold.
From any perspective the biggest losers of this war have been the people of Ukraine. Mr Zelensky might have been a popular leader. Has he been a wise leader as he has led his people into a bleak future of being refugees, internally displaced or being buried in mass graves?
It is not only the main protagonists who have lost. The global community will also pay with the price due to geopolitical turmoil and economic upheavals.
View it from any angle, this has been a war without victors. It has been politics of bloodshed all the way. We all have lost.
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