Putin’s Ukraine war: Early military lessons for India from the Russian invasion

Past Russian military forays into Georgia (2008) and Crimea (2014), as also its sustained support of separatists in the Donbas region, were ...

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 overcome limited or no opposition in double-quick time. From the Russian perspective, the conditions in Ukraine at present were same as in the past. Russia dwarfed Ukraine militarily. NATO was on the sidelines 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, 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 it seems as if the focus is Kyiv. The first military lesson of this war is that do not fight future wars on the premises of the last war. Having said this, let us analyse the first cycle (till 28 February) and draw military lessons out of it.

A view of the central square following shelling of the City Hall building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. Russia on Tuesday stepped up shelling of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, pounding civilian targets there. Casualties mounted and reports emerged that more than 70 Ukrainian soldiers were killed after Russian artillery recently hit a military base in Okhtyrka, a city between Kharkiv and Kyiv, the capital. (AP Photo/Pavel Dorogoy)

Well, before the actual kinetic battle, information, intelligence and cyberwars had begun in the grey 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 people’s resistance.

To recount the sequence of events, the kinetic battle commenced on 24 February 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 airpower or anti-aircraft assets. Till date, Ukraine air assets have been able to operate with some effect.

Later, on 24 February, Russian forces commenced a multipronged advance 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 complete affair 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 February, Russian forces had advanced on three thrust lines and had established three distinct enclaves around Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson. 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 airstrikes were continuing intermittently. Specifics are not known as yet and will emerge later. On 28 February 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. The US 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. The lesson is that future wars will be information and intelligence intensive. Switch to our scenario. The 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 wake-up call for the prime minister, the defence minister, NSA, and the yet-to-be-appointed CDS. 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 hope someone apprises our prime minister that we cannot be “aatmanirbhar” (self-reliant) without intelligence. Unless 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, just think. None of the cyber-attacks has 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’. It makes a lot of sense.

The cyber spectrum in a war is important. Image courtesy News18

Overall, I think the armed forces need to realistically use the cyber domain in battle. China lays a lot of emphasis on informatisation and cyberwarfare. It is increasingly network dependent. This is a vulnerability waiting to be exploited. Disrupt Chinese information ops 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 transfers. Better to be strong on communication, use tactical acumen rather than on innate lifeless data. The simpler it is the better.

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 ‘aatmanirbharta’? At national levels, the issue becomes more complicated and definitely needs attention. After all, 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 the infantry alone. Time to wake up out of our slumber. Long-range firepower delivered by rockets, cruise missiles, aeroplanes and drones in the initial stages opened up space for manoeuvre and created conditions for further operations. They shaped the battlefield 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 comprehension. In the event gaps in firepower planning and delivery gave a window of opportunity to Ukrainian forces to retaliate.

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 have kept the few Smerch launchers they have 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 prepared killing fields, which were kept under close observation. Observation it seems was by CCTVs and drones. Innovative indeed. India needs to study this better.

The Tibetan terrain

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 that Chinese operational concepts lay a large emphasis on precision firepower. Our deployments must cater for this. The Chinese would also be studying this battle closely to draw their lessons.

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The multi-pronged offensive carried out by the Russians looks great on paper. However, each prong is widely separated from the other without mutual support. All lead to independent objectives. While it could be argued that three such prongs will inherently give a degree of success with at least one of them succeeding, the question is: 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. 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 the EU. The major 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 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 Putin and the Russian Army might win the battle but lose the war. It was Clausewitz who had said that war is a mere continuation of politics by other means. 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 to be a forgone conclusion. However, let us wait for time to roll and reveal the future. There might be more surprises to learn from.

The author was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal.

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