Ever since President Putin ordered the occupation of Ukraine in a ‘Special Military Operation’ this February, he has been at the receiving end of a stream of bad news. Neither were the Russian Armed Forces welcomed with open arms, as they had expected, nor were they able capture Kiev and force a regime change, as Putin had wanted. In the process,both their leadership and rank and file,displayed spectacular incompetence and irretrievably destroyed the reputation of what was till then seen as one of the strongest militaries of the world.
However, nothing could have truly prepared him for the nightmarish turn of events this September. In a brilliant display of operational art, the Ukrainian defence forces launched a counter offensive in the Kharkiv region, catching the Russian military leadership completely by surprise.Having earlier deceived them into reinforcing the Kherson sector by denuding forces deployed in the Kharkiv sector.
The ensuing rout, it clearly was no organised retreat, resulted in prisoners being taken in their thousands, along with all manner of serviceable weapons, ammunition and equipment. This includes hundreds of tanks and armoured personnel carriers which the Ukrainians can use.Ironically, this may well make Russia the largest donor of military equipment to the Ukrainians! In addition, the Ukrainian military have been able to grab back approximately 9000sq kms of occupied territory in the Kharkiv Sector. This includes major rail and road communication centres such as Balakliya, Kharkiv, Izyum and Kupiyansk, thereby ensuring the disruption and dislocation of an already tenuous Russian logistic chain.
As if all this were not enough,Putin found himself further humiliated at the recently concluded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit at Samarkand.There he had to deal with opprobrium from the only friends of consequence he has left, India and China, over the manner in which the Ukrainian campaign has proceeded, with Prime Minister Modi being forthright and calling on him to end the fighting and resolve matters diplomatically.
Finding himself badly cornered, with little option but to continue doubling down,he was forced to sign a decree ordering partial mobilisation of reservists, presently restricted to 300,000 personnel, but as per reports, may go up to a million. He also took the unusual step of extending service tenures of conscripts and those on fixed contracts who were completing their terms of engagement. In addition, he repeated his earlier threat of nuclear retaliation if the West went too far in its support of Ukraine.
By his actions he has clearly acknowledged that the “special military operation” had indeed not gone as planned, especially given the humungous casualties, reportedly above seventy thousand, that the military has suffered.While this is a step up the escalation matrix, the induction of additional troops may not have the desired impact as their quality of training remains suspect. Moreover, the military is already grappling with serious issues of poor leadership, low morale and motivation, weapon and equipment shortages,and a visible disruption in its command-and-control hierarchy, with Putin bypassing the military chain of command and directly issuing directions to commanders in the field.
While Putin has been able to mollify hardliners, who blame the United States and NATO for the sticky situation the Russian military finds itself in,his actions have led to thousands of Russians joining the anti-war/anti-draft protests that have erupted round the country. That is, in addition to the thousands of others who have fled the country to avoid conscription and the fire- bombing of military recruitment offices.While the protests are presently quite low-key and easily controlled, the situation may well get out of hand very quickly as the public, already in the throes of an unwanted economic downturn, finds itself drawn into an unending conflict with mounting casualties. All of this suggests that the war is becoming increasingly unpopular with the draftees poorly motivated, which hardly bodes well for a military.
In a sense, Putin may have just signed his own death warrant with time running out. Being the person that he is, he is unlikely to willingly abdicate and fade into the background, if victory evades him, as seems increasingly likely. In all probability, he will go out feet first, the victim of just another assassination plot, much in the manner of other dictators and autocrats. Ironically, this disaster is utterly of his own making as prior to his unprovoked aggression, diplomacy was paying dividends, especially as it was backed up with the threat of force.
European members of NATO, reluctant to provoke Russia, were averse to Ukraine joining the bloc and were also keen on keeping a lid on the internecine conflict in the Donbass and Luhansk region. They were also acutely conscious of Russian sensibilities with regard to its position on the Crimean Peninsula. However, Putin, completely misread the situation, and let his over-sized ego and dependence on a closed circle of genuflecting advisors get the better of him. He now finds himself in a hole that seems to be getting deeper by the day and increasingly difficult to get out of.
There are lessons here for us as well, given that Mr. Modi’s governance style appears to brook no opposition, and is based on advice from an extremely small circle of advisors.Initiatives tend to be pushed through hurriedly with goalposts being shifted as stated aims remain unmet. The demonetisation fiasco, that still continues to haunt us, is one such example. In more recent times, it seems utterly bizarre that while we are facing a clear and present danger from Chinese depredations along our borders, Mr. Modi’s government is focused on overhauling the military.
These involve replacing its recruitment system and manpower profile with untried and tested initiatives, like the Agnipath Scheme. Reducing the strength of the army by 200,000 personnel without undertaking a detailed study of its implication or carrying out any rationalisation of strength. It is now in the middle of a project to ride roughshod over customs and traditions that have made the military an outstanding institution, purportedly aimed at ridding it of its colonial hangover. There should be no doubt that such actions do irreparable harm to institutional integrity and functioning. Indeed, a similar exercise prior to 1962 undertaken by the Nehru-Menon duo was primarily responsible for our defeat by the Chinese in 1962.
It may well be that Mr. Modi realises this, because the manner in which we have acceded to Chinese pressure quietly, as borne out by our capitulation in the Corps level military talks suggests that this government has put in place a war avoidance strategy that entails avoiding conflict at any cost. The only ones we seem to be convincing with our diplomatic posturing of standing up to the Chinese, appears to be only to ourselves, which really means nothing, though may well win Mr. Modi another term in office. As the Chinese turn their attention to Arunachal Pradesh, as is likely, it will be interesting to see what contortions this government will perform to avoid getting caught out in a conflict.