Imponderables and inconsistencies of the Ukraine war

The Russian army may have been experimenting, at the outset of the war, with employment of limited resources but the failures to make headway has led to overkill.

Published: 22nd March 2022 12:09 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd March 2022 07:02 PM   |  A+A-

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies on Friday, March 18, 2022 shows damaged and burning apartment buildings and stores in Mariupol, Ukraine. (Photo | AP)

First, the world expected no war, only brinkmanship. When Russia did invade Ukraine on 24 February  2022 the world was expecting an early end to hostilities, with the capitulation of a presumably weak Ukraine. That is how conventional wars usually end; the strong vanquishing the weak. However, even in mismatched conflicts of this kind, there does not exist any doubt that every effort will be made by the two adversaries to limit the capability of the other to pursue the conflict. That would include infliction of damage to infrastructure, industry, national and frontline military morale and capability, while all the time drumming up international support. 

This war has been different. It has gone beyond being conventional in the understanding of that term and is trending as something odd; a synthesis of conventional with the grey zone, giving rise to many imponderables. Those that have been observed over the last three weeks and more commence with the unpredictability factor. Everything about this war has so far proved unpredictable. Computer gaming models and prediction tools have all fallen by the side. The Russian army may have been experimenting at the outset with the employment of limited resources but the failures to make headway has led to overkill, thus compounding the situation. How do we explain the heavy use of artillery, missiles and rockets against civilian population centres in cities, and a virtual ‘scorched earth’ policy? Most noticeably, there has been very little effort by the Russian infantry and armour to close in and capture Ukrainian cities. Cities cannot remain in isolation mode forever and only be punished by firepower. Capturing them demands closing on to them and creating footholds at the periphery. That buys several casualties. Russian armour has been particularly vulnerable to the NLAW, or Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon, produced by the Swedish defence firm SAAB and British defence company Thales. The Javelin anti-tank missile system and the Bayraktar TB2 drones have also been extremely successful. In many ways, half a century after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 between the Egyptians and Israelis, anti-tank missiles have once again come to the fore just as much as the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. It should be known to experienced warriors in the Russian army that the only way to weed out such small infantry detachments at the periphery of built-up areas is by employing the infantry in low-level manoeuvres. No amount of missile strikes and rocket fire is going to find the precision to neutralise the wily infantrymen charged up by the infused spirit of nationalism that such situations bring for weaker nations.

There is an explanation for the reluctance of Russia to use its infantry in the classic role that is demanded by the situation. That role draws casualties and that too in fair numbers. Body bags aren’t exactly what the Russian army bargained for, considering the relative military mismatch, at least on paper. Perhaps forgotten by analysts is that Russia isn’t one of those countries that has the demographics to fight a conventional war, especially one with combinations of other lethalities. As per the Foreign Policy magazine, “Russia suffered its largest natural population decline since World War II, losing 9,97,000 people in the year-long period between October 2020 and September 2021”.  From 1993 to 2007, the fertility rate (number of children a woman can be expected to have over the course of her lifetime) fell below 1.5, far below the 2.1 replacement rate needed to hold a population steady. Translated, that means Russia’s 145 million population could reduce to 136 million, or even less than that, by 2040. Considering this phenomenon, body bags are unacceptable and that tells on the performance of the Russian army at the frontlines. In fact, that has apparently dictated the doctrine employed by Russia in this war; to employ high levels of standoff firepower against targets without consideration for humanitarian aspects and avoiding the employment of infantry or tanks in direct assaults. It has tried through its not-so-attractive information war methods, to project that the Ukrainians were using these civilian institutions and housing complexes for military purposes. One of the basics taught at entry-level to officer cadets (in India for sure) is the fact that firepower is a means to the capture of territory and not the end. Ultimately, boots have to be placed on ground, advance has to be conducted through fire and the enemy has to be engaged in physical combat to overwhelm him before you can claim the capture and control over territory. Many times, the enemy will return to recapture that lost ground for which those who have captured the area have to be prepared to hold and defend it. When you are reluctant to deploy your manpower to do all this, victory will be elusive and won’t come easily.

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While there can be an unending number of reasons for Russian incompetence in the field, it has been hubris and reluctance to follow time-tested military basics that has added to their woes. To imagine that this war would end in three to four days and that advancing tank columns would move primarily over roads and tracks is unpardonable. It reflects how little the Russian army has studied asymmetric warfare, even if that is conducted under conventional war conditions. Logistics stocks to cater for a couple of refills for the maintenance of frontline troops is a very basic aspect of planning. It seems that Russian tanks and other specialist vehicles ran dry after 72 hours; sacrilege indeed. That failure is the reason why the cities are being pounded all over. While Ukraine may not convert to an Afghanistan-like situation, the Russian frustration too is extremely dangerous. Failure of a big power sometimes leads to all kinds of catastrophic decisions that may be completely out of sync with rationality. The references to the ‘N’ word by Russian leaders isn’t a very encouraging development at all.

Thus far, counter propaganda may have kept the Russian population isolated from information about the battlefield. However, modern technologies will not allow an iron curtain-like situation to prevail. Already slick NATO and Ukrainian information warfare is penetrating the Russian homeland. With more body bags flowing rearwards, one can expect  an implosion within the population. Internal turbulence could add to the Kremlin’s irrationality.  This is what NATO and the rest of the world should be prepared for. Perhaps the time has come to stop taking unbending stands for the moment to prevent the unimaginable. 

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir



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