In a book of the similar title, Prof. Graham T. Allison has analyzed the American decision-making process during the Cuban Missile Crisis of Oct 1962. He mentions how at a crucial meeting just before the first Russian ship was to approach the Naval quarantine established by the US, President Kennedy wanted to personally monitor the situation. To this the US Naval Chief is reported to have retorted that this was against the Naval SOP (standard operating procedure) and that the President should keep out of a purely naval affair. It is another matter that President Kennedy over-ruled his naval chief and did personally talk to the American ship’s captain before he intercepted the Russian ship. On peaceful handling of this tense moment depended the fate of whole world and avoidance of nuclear Armageddon!
One wonders if a similar exchange ever took place in Moscow when President Putin decided on invasion of Ukraine. One may possibly never know given Russian penchant for secrecy in such matters. This analysis is based on speculation of what must/could have happened at ‘Stavka’ (Russian High Command).
There were two clear separate but complimentary components of Russian action in Ukraine, one was the armoured thrust to Kiev and land offensive in Eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. The aim of advance to Kiev appears to have been classic war aim of destroying the ‘enemy’s will to fight’ while the other had territorial aim. One can speculate that the threat to Kiev was expected to lead to collapse of the ‘will to fight’ in Ukraine thus facilitating easy conquest of the Donbas. In their drive to Kiev, the Russians carefully avoided advance to the Western border of Ukraine that would have brought Russians in direct confrontation with NATO.
After nearly two months of fighting, it seems clear that Russia has failed in its objective of affecting Ukraine’s will to fight. With the land border to the West open, Ukraine has been receiving steady supply of modern arms from NATO, helping them resist Russians not only in Kiev area but also Donbas region. If the Russians had only a limited war aim of territorial gain in Donbas, as seems likely with the current situation of withdrawal from Kiev and renewed fighting in Donbas, then the advance on Kiev seems to have been a costly mistake.
It must be noted that fighting in Eastern Ukraine between Russian supported separatists and Ukraine has been going on since 2014. By escalating the limited conflict to invasion of Kiev Russia seems to have archived no military gains and on the other hand brought in international support to Ukraine. One wonders if this matter was adequately deliberated upon by Stavka. It seems likely that President Putin and his authoritarian tendency had led to institutional hubris. Russia has always had a tradition of Czar like figure controlling the destiny of the country. It seems that the modern democratic state that come into being post demise of Soviet Union, has failed to create institutional checks and balances. Russia’s actions in Ukraine seem to have united Western Europe as never before and has made a permeant enemy in Ukraine.
India is no stranger to such individual based decisions leading to military disasters. India’ first Prime Minister was a true democrat by all means but was also an authoritarian leader. During 1962 clash with China, official records speak volume how he and he alone took many crucial decisions without any inputs from professional advisors. History has not forgotten how he casually mentioned while leaving for a trip to Sri Lanka that he has ordered the army ‘to throw out the Chinese’. In any case the military leadership of that time was so emasculated and in awe of his personality that they did not put up any resistance to his irrationality in provoking an armed conflict when India was unprepared. There was an ugly precedent to what Nehru could do. General KS Thimayya, the Army Chief,had sought to resign as Chief due to differences with Krishna Menon and Nehru in 1959, but was ‘compelled’ by Nehru to withdraw it and then humiliated in Parliament by him.
In 1971, after a famous victory on the battle field, India squandered most of its gains in peace conference in Shimla in 1972. The then Prime Minister, another authoritarian leader, did not think it necessary to consult the military leadership during the peace negotiations. Shimla Agreement of 1972 sowed the seeds of proxy war in Kashmir.
In the Indian context the situation has improved somewhat post 1990s when structures like the NSC (National Security Council) and its allied set up have come into being. One has indeed seen a degree of consultation between military professionals and political leadership on a regular basis. But it must be re-emphasized that irrespective of structures, it is the personnel manning these organizations that have to stand up and be counted.
The mess that Russia finds itself in Ukraine is a warning to all countries that centralized and authoritarian decision-making on matters of internal and external security can lead to national disasters. This is a timely warning for countries like India that have yet to develop strong institutional culture and face multiple and complex security problems on both internal and external front. Russian example is a warning how top institutional head ought not to behave.