Lessons from War in Ukraine
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 26 Jul , 2022

Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war that followed has continued for over 100 days. At the global political level this is a continuation of the one-sided conventional wars that have broken out ever since the end of Cold War and end of ‘Duo Polar World Balance’. The only novelty in this is that the great power that has taken to ‘unilateral’ use of force is country other than the US (and Western Alliance). Post Cold War the US carried out invasions of Iraq, Syria, Libiya and Afghanistan. Other than in Syria, the Western alliance had a free run. Power asymmetry between the invader and the victim was such that there was no serious resistance. The novelty in Ukraine is that this time it is Russia that has taken to unilateral use of force to achieve its objective of preventing NATO expansion in its sphere of influence. While the Russians have been careful not to publicly up the ante on nuclear threat, the limited NATO response to Ukraine’s plea for military help is clear indication of the effectiveness of Russian nuclear deterrence.

Plight of Ukraine in the post Cold War era clearly brings out the timeliness of Indian decision to go for nuclear deterrence in 1998. This author and think tank Inpad (Initiative for Peace and Disarmament) had relentlessly campaigned for this move. We stand vindicated while the critics of that timely move by Vajpayee govt are discredited and need to apologize to the nation for their mindless criticism for overt nuclearization. Ukraine in 1992 had all the wherewithal for nuclear weapons but decided to de-nuclearize itself based on joint US-Russian assurances. It is paying dearly for that costly mistake. Most historians agree that we are back to the multi polar unstable world order that existed hundred years ago. The UN has proved itself as ineffective as the erstwhile League of Nations of that era.

The obvious political lessons notwithstanding, there are also some important strategic and tactical lessons that we ought to learn from the Ukraine war. Some keyboard warriors and armchair analysts based in Dilli have conjured up a scenario of China and Pakistan doing a ‘Ukraine’ on India. This outlandish analysis needs to be debunked as it shifts the focus from ‘real’ issues.

The principal weakness of Ukraine is that when Russia openly threatened it with use of force, it continued to rely on efficacy of Western help and believed that Russia will not attack. The faith in ‘diplomacy’ to ward off a military threat is reminiscent of Nehru’s faith in the mantra that the Chinese will not attack in 1962. As a consequence of that policy decision, Ukraine’s only option was a defensive strategy and tactics. Ukraine lacks means to carry out offensive action against Russia. Ukraine war is a classic case that purely defensive strategy can never succeed. The biggest lesson for India from this episode is that in facing the combined threat from China and Pakistan, while India’s policy may be purely the defence of its territory, it cannot succeed unless it has an offensive strategy. While it is easily possible to implement an offensive strategy against Pakistan, the peculiar geography presents a formidable challenge to pursue an offensive defense against China. India must search for credible targets for offensive action against China, short of nuclear weapons, if it has to credibly deter a conventional threat from it. These targets could be in the other domains like sea, space, economy or cyber world.

At tactical level however Ukraine seems to have achieved a degree of success. The Russian expectation that an armoured thrust to Kiev will lead to collapse of the state has proved wrong due to tactical resistance by Ukrainians as well as political resilience. The Russians also failed to cutoff Ukraine from land access to NATO countries like Poland and Hungary. Thus Americans and the Western nations were able to supply much needed weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. This Western support did much to shore up Ukraine’s morale and avert a collapse. 

At tactical level drones seem to have come to Ukraine’s rescue. The Russian weakness in this emerging technology has been a major embarrassment for it. Recent reports in media about the success of American supplied drones like Switchblade, capable of being carried by an infantryman in a bag pack, has caused havoc on Russian tanks. If newspaper reports are to be believed, Russia has approached Iran for drones. How come a major arms producer like Russia is behind Iran in this field is a mystery. Ignoring the emerging technology of drones could well be due to the reluctance of the military to see the change and power of various lobbies.

In India as well, the military remains in thrall of old platforms like tanks or fighter aircraft and is not fully into emerging drone warfare. India’s largely govt owned and run public sector arms producers are even more sluggish to respond to change. On the other hand, India has a thriving auto industry, especially two wheelers, who have huge capacity for manufacture of small engines. In combination with our vast pool of Information technology manpower, India has the potential to be a Drone Power. What we need is visionary military and industrial leadership to seize the opportunity.

We can ignore the lessons from Ukraine war only at our peril.

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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

Col Anil Athale

Former infantry soldier who was head of War History division, Min of Def, Research fellowships including Fulbright, Kennedy Centre, IDSA, USI and Philosophical Society. 30 years research of conflicts in Kashmir, NE, Ireland, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Author of 7 books on military history.

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