Russia-Ukraine War: What Went Wrong
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 25 Feb , 2024

It is now over two years since Russia invaded Ukraine and the fighting seems to be no where near an end. The conflict seems to resemble more and more the Iran-Iraq war that lasted eight years from 1980 to 1988. Like Russia today, Iraq expected to affect a regime change in Iran as it perceived the revolutionary regime of Iran posing threat to Iraq because of its sizable Shia population. The eight years war saw economic devastation and close to 500,000 casualties. Finally, both sides accepted the UN brokered peace. At the end of the conflict, nothing had changed and neither side could claim victory.  

Russia, two years ago marched into Ukraine hoping to overthrow the pro-West regime and forestall Eastward expansion of NATO, seen as threatening the security of Russia.

In both these cases, the initiators of conflict flouted the first principle of war, SELECTION AND MAINTENANCE OF AIM. (Emphasis added).

A little explanation is called for before we go to the discussion proper. The military mind has too often confused this cardinal principle to be more about ‘maintenance’ rather than selection. That is because it is the easy part. The crux is in selection of military aim that it is directly linked to achieving political objective. According to age old wisdom of Clausewitz, wars are fought to achieve political aim. The aim has to be ‘within the means’ of the power that is on the offensive. Here in analysing this factor one has to see the corelation of forces to the one that enemy is capable of deploying as well as terrain. In case of Iraq’s war on Iran, the country lacked the resources and numbers to carryout the regime change. Stalemate was to be expected.

In case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the initial armoured thrust to the capital Kiev was foolhardy (more like the infamous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’) as a consequence it achieved nothing. The tanks were not supported by infantry and fell prey to the Ukrainian infantry tank hunting teams.

The Russian’s seriously miscalculated the effect of this on Ukrainian morale. Ukraine did not crumble at the sight of Russian tanks outside Kiev. This serious miscalculation by Russian politico-military leadership had immediate and long-term background.

In 2008, Russia launched military operations against Republic of Georgia and occupied provinces of Abkhazia and Ossetia. Like in case of Ukraine war, the raison-d’etre was presence of ethnic Russians in the area. Russia prevailed in that attempt as Georgia was no match militarily to Russia. But even more crucially, Georgia has no land access to NATO countries and any kind of arms supply posed major problem. In 2014, Russia occupied Crimean Peninsula without much resistance from Ukraine. Both these successes certainly emboldened the Russians. This over confidence due to recent happenings was partially responsible for the Russian adventure against Ukraine.

On the long-term basis, false historical narrative about the Russian victory in the 2nd World War is deeply in grained in the Russian psyche.

It was not Russia but the Soviet Union that won the war against the Germans in 1945. The Central Asian Republics mainly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan contributed hugely to the Russian victory. Close to 4 million soldiers from Central Republics fought on the side of the Russians in that war. Out of a population of 6 million Uzbeks, nearly 1.5 million joined the Soviet forces, a whooping 25% of the population. Russian industry relocated to Uzbekistan made an equally major contribution to victory.

Unfortunately, neither the Russian nor the Western historians have acknowledged this fact. The Central Asian soldiers were described as Mongol hordes and mere cannon fodder. The Russians have internalised this false history and have come to believe that the victory over Germany was a Russian victory and not victory of Soviet Union.

This false historical narrative has prompted the Russian federation to have an exaggerated view of its military prowess. Ukrainian adventure was born out of this false narrative. Psychologically, Russia has still to come to terms with end of Soviet Union and accept the fact of it having been  reduced to middling European power.

If right in the beginning Russia was to have selected the achievable aim of consolidation of its possessions in Eastern Ukraine and land access to Crimea, it would have easily achieved it. Its ambition of effecting a regime change in Ukraine was beyond its military means and therefore failed.

Russo-Ukraine war is just one example. Increasingly, countries or insurgent groups are guilty of selecting grandiose and lofty aims beyond their means while initiating a military action.

One could put the Chinese aggression of in Eastern Ladakh in May of 2020 as one of ill-concieved overly ambitious grandiose aim which did not achieve any military or political aim. Similarly, when Hamas attacked Israeli on 7 Oct 2023, what did it expect to achieve? Did it think that it can overcome and destroy Israel? Instead of achieving any political objective for Palestine, Hamas has plunged the Gaza region into a massive humanitarian crisis. In South Asia, by selecting a military aim of capture of Kashmir, Pakistan has come to brink of economic bankruptcy.

Even in the 21st century, Clausewitz’s first principle of war, selection and maintenance of aim has not  its importance.

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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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