Russo-Ukraine War: Military Overview
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 12 Mar , 2023

“For Putin,  who dreams of regional hegemony over former Soviet space, Washington’s insistence on unencumbered global hegemony is the unacceptable threat that his war in Ukraine was designed to thwart”  

Both the U.S. and Russia are guilty of what has been labeled “imperial overreach,” trying to dominate other countries or regions beyond their capacity to do so.

– Ronald Suny ( Emeritus Professor University of Michigan and University of Chicago),  The Moscow Times, 07 Feb 2023

The Russian juggernaut started rolling on 24 February last year bringing about mayhem of unparallel dimensions not seen since Second World War. The political sanity and rational thinking has been the biggest casualty in the saga of this ongoing military confrontation. The war continues with open ended  objectives with  senseless destruction of life and property with no end in sight. To start with, this war could have been avoided by simply according primacy to the diplomacy to seek amicable answers to the insecurities of sovereign import and forced political  impositions.

Russia as well as Ukraine have been nurturing environmental distrust against each other ever since they parted ways in 1991. Ukraine in particular has been trying to shake off the claustrophobia of communist   afflictions seen to be an enigma impacting their sovereign freedom. Add to this sentiment, a well orchestrated   narrative of western world has further increased the  schism making it  difficult for a compromise. There are  multiple stakeholders  in this war wherein  Ukraine happens to be in forefront in  the shadow play of the proxy participants .

The potential of Russia to re emerge as a super power once again did not fit into geo political designs of western world lead by US.  China was already a big challenge to them,  and now with Russia as another  competitor, the prospects of a multi polar world  was a  matter of discomfort of compulsive dislike to US.  Accordingly, Russia is being isolated by the west with an aim to deny her political space what they aspire for. In consequence, the political hubris and national egos have  already reached a stage that may engulf the entire humanity into a third world war. The possibility of nuclear calculus cannot be ruled out, hence matter of global concern.  

The  Russia (USSR), after its breakup,   wanted to keep Ukraine under her folds as a buffer against  seemingly scheming intents of the west. Whereas,  the US Inc encouraged  Ukraine to shed the baggage of past  and join  European Union for  better economic prospects.  They were also assured of security umbrella by according membership of the NATO to them. It meant presence of NATO right at the  Russian borders , a  situation that was obviously not acceptable to Russia due to her existential security concerns.

The   Russia  impressed upon Ukraine  not to tinker with the existing politico- military status quo. Looking at no change in Ukrainian attitude, Russia chose to up the ante by  deploying military on Ukrainian border. The purpose was clearly to convey Russian resolve  to take the matter in her hands in the face of inimical intents of the  west  in her backyard. It warranted creating security structures against any military threat to  them, and   control over  Black Sea  for economic  and military  purposes . The coercive military diplomacy  continued for almost a year to make the proponents of new political order understand  the seriousness  of Russian concerns.   Looking at the intransigence of Ukraine, and built up of political crescendo by west beyond acceptable levels,   Russia chose to shed her strategic patience.

Russia   moved into Ukraine from multiple directions on 24 February calling it a special operations. In military parlance it meant a short and swift operation a coup de main of sorts to bring about conflict termination soon. The objective of show of force was aimed to bring about collapse of Ukraine. It did not happen as  Ukraine chose to not to get intimidated  despite  military asymmetry and pushed to the wall. This paper encapsulates analysis of  Russo-Ukraine war as it has unfolded with its   politico- military connotations. It is based on information available in open domain, common military insight and reasonable conjunctures.

The war seems to have unfolded in roughly in four phases with continuous slugfest all across the Russo-Ukraine borders so far. The first phase  started  with attempted seize of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. The Russian army moved in from north from Belarus astride road axes alongside capture of an air head closer to Kyiv for logistics ease. Simultaneously,  Kharkiv , a town on the  north eastern border was also attempted to be captured. The probable  aim was to divide the Ukrainian forces,  or may be even  link up with the  northern pincer  to further pressurize the Ukraine  to give in.

The force primarily consisted of mechanized elements , albeit  not seen to carry out  any tactical maneuver specially in Kyiv sector.  Ukraine in the mean while had converted the towns   into  fortresses   with anti tank obstacles and fire  positions covering the approaches. Capture of built up areas warrant  Infantry predominant attacks which are slow, need large forces and often result in high casualties. Whereas ,no such serious  infantry operations  seem to have been attempted. Even the   air borne troops  inserted in the sector  were not utilized to attain tactical advantage  in right earnest.

Russian positions in Kyiv sector became untenable after few days. However,  they  were successful in  securing  substantial ground   in Kharkiv region. While  Kyiv,  Kharkiv and other  towns were subjected to heavy  fire assaults by  artillery, missiles and aerial means but could not be captured . Subsequently, Ukraine repulsed Russian attacks  and  pushed out  Russian troops gradually out of these  regions. Russian troops withdrew from Kyiv, Sumy and  Zhytomyr areas by  March end. The encirclement of  Kharkiv continued for quite some time with reduced Russian troops.

 Russia also made   incursions into eastern as well as southern regions  with political leaning towards Russia.  Capture of eastern region facilitates Russia to create a defensive line based on Dnieper River. The southern region was important to both Russia as well as Ukraine as it controls  the ports on  Black Sea.  Russia alongside their sponsored rebel  groups   secured few  selected areas  in Donbas region as also astride  Maripol, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson sectors in phase one. In that, Kherson fell by  02 March, and Zaporizhzhia on 04 March after heavy fight close to Antonivsky bridge on Dnieper River. While Russia had blocked access to these towns but made no further push for their capture probably due to resource constraints. The Ukraine in response managed to stabilize the situation by early April in all the sectors of Russian incursion as seen in phase one.

The analysis  of phase one  suggests that   capture of ’political centre of gravity’, Kyiv appears to be central to  Russian strategy alongside overwhelm Ukraine in other sectors. The plan appears to be based on presumption of a paralytic  shock  leading to collapse of the Ukrainian government facilitating a regime change. There seemed  to be  no signs of  a  viable contingency planning  in case of a failure  to achieve the desired  conflict termination. Russia had expected that either the Ukrainian  leaders will run away, or sign on the dotted lines . None of this happened even though the  US  had  offered to  evacuate the Ukrainian  president.   The Ukrainian leadership, army and citizen soldiers stood the ground in the face of Russian coercive military threat.

From military perspective, selection of objective located 400 km in depth without shaping the battle field  was not a very sensible idea. The link up from Kharkiv, if that was part of plan,  was impractical and  certainly over ambitious.  There were  logistics constraints due to  distances involved and insecure lines  of communications.  Add to above, Russia divided  her forces over almost  thousand km  on  widely separated  multiple axes in piecemeal   manner. Russian operations were launched against Ukrainian strong firm bases based on built up areas instead of drawing  them out and force their tactical dislocation. Moreover, Russia aborted the mission Kyiv, main stay of their strategy, without a fight  and shifted her  forces to other sectors .

 Apropos,  ‘Selection of a viable objective’,  ‘Concentration of Force’ and ‘Maintenance of Aim’ as  principles of war were  violated. It appeared to be primarily a ‘political plan’ sans sound military considerations  of  ground, troops to task and time and space factors.  It  reflected adversely  on  first Russian move leading to a cascading effect in subsequent operations. The Russian army troops in contact were  found to be wanting in their fighting skills and motivation as reported by the western media.  It obviously, gave a morale boost to Ukraine that was amply reflected in their resolve in subsequent standoffs with high nationalist quotient.

Consequent to  miscalculations in  phase one , Russia shifted her  focus on ‘Military centre of gravity’ in phase two from April onwards. The aim now was to capture tactically important terrain for building up security structures over land as well as sea space. The areas  of interests were  identified as  Donetsk &  Luhansk tracks in eastern, and  Zaporizhzhia & Kherson in southern sectors. The objective seemed to be capture & consolidation  of  Donbas region and lean  on  the river line to maximum extent.  Major Russian push came in summers  of  2022 in the eastern sector probably after  side stepping  of troops from Kyiv  and Kharkiv  regions  and some  fresh reinforcements. The progress of operations was slow due to built up areas and stiff Ukrainian resistance. Substantial  parts  of Luhansk and Donetsk were captured by June end.

In southern sector, the Black Sea  Provides access to Mediterranean Sea, a junction of three continents and  two Oceans. Accordingly, capture of ports  and  coastal areas  dominating  Black Sea is essential  for  Russian economic as well as military interests. While the Russian encirclement of  Mariopol, Metlitopol, Zeporizhzhia and Kherson was in place  since March, the  major offensives  were launched  to capture these towns in late summers. By September,  major parts of eastern as well as southern sectors were under Russian domination.

The  Russian captured areas at this stage happened to be in a semicircle over a wide frontage resulting in  lesser reserves available for offensive. Whereas, Ukraine had advantage of shorter direct approaches to attack selected Russian held areas. There appeared to be a shift in strategies on both sides in emerging situation in phase three. Russia, having achieved their optimal objectives, was seen to be consolidating her gains. On other hand, Ukraine was seen to be aggressive with motive  to  take back occupied areas from late summers to onset of winters.  

Ukraine  chose to launch  offensives  on two extreme flanks  of the Russian defences namely north eastern (Kharkiv/Luhansk) and southern (Kharson/ Zaporzhzhia) sectors. This seem to have divided the Russian response resulting in tactical advantage to Ukraine. Ukraine evicted Russians from Kharkyiv  by early  September, however,  Russia  called it a  redeployment exercise.  Kherson was being subjected to Ukrainian assaults since  July and these continued till Russians were forced to pull back to eastern bank on 11 November. Simultaneously, major part of  Zaporizhzhia region was retaken by the year end.

Russia, in this campaign   had captured 28% of Ukrainian territories including Crimea by April which was reduced to 18% by November. As per estimates of western media, Ukraine has reclaimed more than 50% of territories since commencement of Russian offensive in February. Success of Ukraine  in Kharson sector   facilitates counter veiling options towards Crimea and other coastal areas.  However, Russia continues to dominate  the major part of Black Sea coastal belt as of now. 

The phasefour has been  more of psychological warfare targeting the Ukrainian  civil society trough coercive use of winters as a weapon to break their will to fight.  In that, Russia is known to have targeted power, water and essential civic infrastructure  required for survival in harsh winters. It was done to force  the civil population  to rise against the government to stop the war and agree to Russian dictates. However, Ukrainian civil society did not yield to such Russian pressures despite all the hardships heaped upon  them.

The media  is rife with talks of spring offensive by the Ukraine with newly acquired mechanized equipment from western countries. They have also requested  for aircrafts, drones and missiles of  offensive variants. It clearly shows offensive intents of Ukraine  to take back captured areas, probably to exploit their gains in Luhansk and Kharson sectors.  

 On other hand, Russia is  known to have invested  Bhakmut  since  last six months. Bhakmut is a major  communication centre controlling north- south laterals east of Dnieper River. It acts as a  firm base  for capture of  high grounds  to its north  west that  dominate  the  eastern belt as also the  river line.   It is suitable  as a pivot for riposte against Ukrainian offensive  on northern flanks of Luhansk and capture of  Donetsk industrial belt.  Russian held areas in Donbas region  alongside Bhakmut and high grounds leaning on Dnieper River make a formidable crescent shaped defensive line. That seems to be their possible objective in next phase.

Capture of Bakhmut would  be seen as a symbol of major Russian victory, a much needed political bargaining chip  in the present circumstances. On other hand,  denial of its capture by Ukraine would go in her favour with tactical advantages. Hence, the ongoing slugfest in this tactically important town has political  connotations of strategic  import.

As the events have unfolded over the last one year the military asymmetry between Russia and Ukraine seem to be getting narrower by the day. It is the will power and  resolve  of the leadership and public of Ukraine that has kept the Russians at bay despite all the structural constraints. Ukraine has the advantage of political, material,  financial and moral support of the western powers. Majority of UN member countries have expressed their support to Ukraine due to violation of UN charter by Russia.

The end state as of now is that Russia is in command of large  areas east of Dnieper River, as also  the coastal belt dominating the Black sea.   These were the  two appreciated  objectives  of Russia that provide optimal security and economic outreach. As the situation stands today it can be described as ‘ Neither Russia has emerged as a victor, nor Ukraine has lost the plot’ as yet. There appears to be a strategic pause as of now with exception of intermittent fire assaults to keep the pressure on Ukraine. The game of nuclear sabre rattling  by Russia continues  apparently  for the consumption of the NATO fraternity  to keep their hands off the table.

There have been talks of need to  bring an end to this war as it has potential to spiral out into a nuclear slugfest.  It was first in Samarkand  when Indian Prime Minister gave a voice to this move by his statement “It is not an era of war”. It has found echo in varied subsequent international forums, latest one being recently held G-20 foreign ministers conclave in New Delhi. Russia having achieved some what they were  looking at seems to be open to talks. The Ukraine also  have been  hinting at reproach by indicating their pre conditions for coming to the table.

There are clear indications of war fatigue amongst all the parties concerned. It is a matter of who blinks first. The world is hoping for some sense prevails amongst the warring nations and their supporters to bring down curtains on this senseless confrontation that could have been avoided in the first place. It is time for diplomacy to take lead to bring both the warring sides to negotiating table,  failing which it would have disastrous consequences for the world peace.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Rameshwar Yadav

Former Director General Infantry, Indian Army.

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2 thoughts on “Russo-Ukraine War: Military Overview

  1. An exhaustive appre of on going conflict in Ukraine that clarifies and put in perspective the Geo, Fin, nuclear and Global Threat Perceptions clearly for the Lady Man’s Understanding. Profound View Pts. Kudos —):

  2. Sir
    The rigorous research about the geography and minute details of warzone progression is incredible. Your in depth analysis in this article is par excellence of your status. Congratulations and kudos to you.
    Thanks 😊

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