Should the war spill beyond Ukraine there is a clear danger of the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
A few days before the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, the Indian Military Review had done an in house war-game. Based upon known Russian doctrines and recent demonstrated combat performance in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia and Syria, we had forecast that Russia’s likely war aims would be to seriously wreck Ukraine as a functional military state and attempt a regime change. They would advance on multiple thrust lines but seek to retain ground only in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the east and Crimea and the coastal areas in the south. These would be terrain objectives that would be retained at any cost. Russia had a huge advantage in airpower, missile power and traditional artillery fire power. Its T-72 and T-90 tanks were clearly superior to the Ukrainian T-80 tanks and the T-64, especially in optronics and night fighting capabilities.
The signature Russian way of war has been to use massive fire assaults to create shock and awe and thereby economise on force levels and military lives. This was most evident in WWII when Stalin called artillery the God of war and quipped that quantity generates its own quality. Russian forces have traditionally relied on “echelonment” of forces. Second and third echelon forces were kept in reserve and used to maintain relentless momentum in any offensive once the first echelon was used up or petered out. Based on this anchor premise most military observers felt that Russia could achieve these objectives in 10 days (two to three weeks at best) in Ukraine. This war however has now entered its second month.
FORCE RESTRAINT: From the very outset of this war the Russian campaign has been characterised by a surprising degree of restraint that flies in the face of the traditional Russian way of war. This has always relied on mass and scale, especially in the use of suppressive fires. From the purely military point of view, massive suppressive fires were badly needed to neutralise huge numbers of Javelin ATGMs and Stinger shoulder fired SAMs that had been liberally supplied to Ukraine. Most military analysts were therefore surprised to find a near total absence of the Russian Air Force (VKS) for extended and extensive bombing campaigns. Even more surprising was the near total absence of large scale artillery and MBRL fire assaults on cities and built up areas, especially in the initial stages of the war. The Russian first phase SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) campaign was confined to just one single day. Contrast this with the US 40-day air campaign in Iraq and the 80-day air interdiction campaign by US and NATO in Yugoslavia. Given troops to task calculations, the overall Russian force level deployed was far too less to cater for the reduction/isolation of some 15 or more cities, unless use of heavy fire power was envisaged. Besides there was a near total absence of Russian cutting edge equipment like T-14 Almaty tanks and even Active Protection Systems (APS) on the T-72 and T-90 tanks employed (despite the dense anti-tank environment they had to operate in). Like the Egyptians had done in 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the Russians seemed to prefer to operate under the area denial umbrella of their Triumf S-400 missiles deployed in Belarus and Russia proper. Though the S-400s have worked quite well but this denied the Russian troops the heavy air support they could easily have counted on, given the air power asymmetry between the two sides. So what explains this baffling and most uncharacteristic force usage restraint by the Russians?
CULTURAL FACTORS & INTELLIGENCE FAILURE: There is a widespread belief that Putin was misled by his intelligence (FSB) to seriously underestimate the degree of resistance that the Ukrainian armed forces would put up. It was mentioned that perhaps accurate intelligence was available but senior FSB officers lacked the moral courage to put it up to Putin. They only tried to reinforce his dominant perception that like Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine itself in 2014, the opposition would fold up and surrender without a fight. There is indeed some truth in this premise. To everyone’s surprise the airborne forces left the air base and charged up to Kiev the capital even as Putin demanded that Ukraine surrender. The Ukrainians put up stiff resistance and recaptured the vacated Hostomel air base. The airborne forces almost walked into a trap as it were. No operation can be premised on the expectation that the enemy will just surrender. There does seem to have been a major intelligence failure of humint or even a deliberate trap. However most Russian military officers I have spoken to have stressed that this nostalgic perception of people to people relations was not just confined to President Putin but was a widespread cultural blind spot in the entire Russian military. Many Russians and even people of Belarus have relations in Ukraine and Kiev, which was once an important centre of Russian culture. As such there was a clear cut and widespread desire to restrict force usage against kindred people. This cultural constraint cum intelligence error tended to make military planning clearly subjective in the initial phase of the conflict. The Indians and Pakistanis too were once one people culturally and linguistically. Yet they have, since1947, fought four major wars and one long hybrid war in J&K. This has been characterised by particular viciousness on Pakistan’s part. So force restraint in trying to win the information war seriously constrained the Russian army in rapidly winning the Ground war
THE GERASIMOV DOCTRINE OF HYBRID WARFARE: The Chief of Russian General Staff Gen Valery Gerasimov had enunciated a whole government doctrine for warfare based on a combination of hard and soft powers in 2013. This entailed use of regular and irregular forces (conventional and sub-conventional forces) and coherent use of cyber warfare, electronic warfare, information warfare, disinformation, political, diplomatic and economic tools to gain victory. Based on this Gerasimov doctrine, the Russians had made impressive use of hybrid warfare in 2014 to foment insurgencies in Russian speaking areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. They captured significant chunks of these provinces (around 30%) which declared themselves as independent (a la Abkhazia and Ostia in Georgia). Just before this conflict Russia recognised these as independent states. Hybrid war had worked very well so far in both Georgia and Ukraine.
TRANSITION FROM HYBRID WAR TO REGULAR WARFARE: The key question here is-when on 24 Feb President Putin announced his decision to launch a “Special Operation” in Ukraine with the stated aim of destroying Ukraine’s military potential and carrying out de-Nazification, was he not making a direct transition from hybrid war to a full scale conventional war? From 2017 onwards the US had been heavily arming Ukraine with Javelin ATGMs and shoulder fired Stinger missiles. In Jul 2021 US, Polish, Ukrainian and Latvian troops had held a joint military exercise in Ukraine (Ex Three Swords). This entailed over 1,200 troops and 200 tanks and armoured vehicles along with air power elements. Tactics to counter a Russian attack had been worked out in detail. Russian sources indicate that plans were being hatched to mount an invasion of the Russian held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk and concurrently ask for membership of NATO. This would involve US and NATO troops in this conflict. It was this exercise that had convinced President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that if Russia attacked, US and NATO forces would come to his aid. In Dec 2021, in yet another provocation, Ukraine and US co-hosted a major Naval exercise (codenamed Op Sea Breeze) on the Black Sea in which 34 nations’ navies took part. American B-52 bombers made practice nuclear bombing runs against Russia and a ramming incident almost happened between a Russian destroyer and a British naval vessel. Finally in Dec 2021 itself, US and Ukraine Foreign ministers signed the US-Ukraine Charter of Strategic Partnership that was said to be guided by the 2008 Bucharest summit (where the idea of including Georgia and Ukraine in NATO was first mooted). By end Dec 2021 Ukraine was a de facto member of NATO for all practical purposes and Russia was apprehending an attack on the separatist held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. Some 60,000 Ukrainian troops were massed against the Donbas region. Russia therefore decided to launch a preemptive operation.
Russia had begun mobilizing its forces on the Ukrainian border in a massive exercise designed to seek written guarantees that Ukraine would not join NATO and no offensive weapons would be deployed in 14 East European countries that had joined NATO. (In Dec 2021 itself Putin had written to President Joe Biden clearly seeking these written guarantees.) To be credible, any such exercise has to be structured for a seamless transition to actual kinetic operations. When that finally happened on 24 Feb 22, the level of combat had clearly to shift from hybrid warfare to full-fledged conventional military operations with a clear option to cross the tactical nuclear threshold if the US or other NATO countries intervened. The continuation of the hybrid war mindset after the onset of full scale military operations, was in hindsight, a clear mis-calculation. This highlights the tension between the Gerasimov Hybrid War doctrine and the traditional Russian way of war. This mismatch between the two mindsets has characterised this conflict. In trying to win the information war you cannot afford to lose or impede the outcome of the ground war.
HOLDING BACK: Anticipation of a wider war. There is another curious aspect. Russia has not deployed any of its cutting edge, frontline military equipment in Ukraine. There is no sign of the T-14 Almaty new tanks or the active protection system on its T-72 and T-90 tanks. This was sorely needed given the amazingly dense anti-tank environment. We did not see the SU-57 Stealth fighter and even very few of the SU 35 Fighters. In fact after first 2 days we hardly saw any use of the Russian Air Force. If the aim was to tell NATO to lay off then the intensity of force usage had to be very high to deter potential aggressors about the cost they would have to pay. Russia is a major exporter of weapons and frankly militaries use wars to advertise their weapons. So why this holding back? The answer is chilling. Russia is clearly anticipating a widening of the conflict-that is why it is clearly husbanding its resources for a wider and more lethal war with Europe where it is clear it may have to use tactical nuclear weapons. Whether it expects to be attacked by NATO or is contemplating pre-emptive action, is in the realm of conjecture.
DEMOGRAPHIC FACTORS: This force restraint may also be an outcome of its demographic profile and ageing population. In 1979 it had sent five Soviet divisions to invade and pacify Afghanistan. Despite major CIA support to the Mujahideen it refused to raise force levels and in some 6 to7 years and contrary to all US claims otherwise, had militarily pacified Afghanistan. So will we see induction of fresh Troops (second and third echelon forces) into Ukraine or will the existing contingent be given a few days of rest and refit and then asked to regroup and resume the assault now on core areas like Donbas and southern coastline that Russia wants to retain?
MAJOR OUTCOMES AND LESSONS LEARNT SO FAR
* The Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine is now in its second month. It began as a swift war of manoeuvre but now has turned into an inexorable attrition nightmare. Western propaganda is trying to claim it as a Pyrrhic victory for Ukraine, which they armed very heavily with Javelin ATGMs and shoulder fired Stinger Sams. In no way can these tactical defensive weapons by themselves win the war for Ukraine. They can only serve to prolong it. That seems to be the American aim—to prolong this war for a couple of months to humiliate Putin and impose maximum attrition on his war machine. This amounts to fighting the Russians till the last Ukrainian man or building standing and driving the world towards economic ruin.
* The expenditure rate of these Javelins and Stingers missiles has been enormous. Zelenskyy now wants 500 of these per day at an estimated cost of $35 million per day. It is virtually impossible for even the US and NATO to supply at such lavish scales. Russian interdiction has now destroyed many oil storage depots, ammunition dumps, tank and aircraft manufacturing plants in Ukraine. They have captured all the Ukrainian nuclear plants in east Ukraine and control the water supply and power to most cities. Sadly, it is doubtful how long the Ukrainians can last in the face of such heavy punishment. In a pure war of attrition, Russia is bound to prevail. Each day that the war lasts will tilt the war more in Russia’s favour. No amount of western propaganda of an impending collapse of Russia can hide this basic military fact. They may win the war on television and captive social media, the ground reality however will inexorably shift in Russia’s favour.
* The use of the Russian Air Force has been rather limited. This failure to press home air superiority has needlessly extended this conflict.
* Meteorological factors like the spring thaw and slush were not given adequate importance.
* Use of tactical ballistic missiles (Iskanders) and cruise missiles (Kalibir) have been impressive and very effective. Over 1,000 of them have been used in this war for pin pointed destruction of targets.
* Economic sanctions could backfire if the dollar stops being the world currency for oil trade. Sanctions will hit Europe very hard and cause stagflation in the US economy.
* The CIA has deployed an army of some 3 lakh cyber war experts to mount cyberattacks on Russia and churn out propaganda in favour of Ukraine. Former government consultants and media specialists are mounting a media campaign on CNN and BBC. They have convinced the world that Ukraine has won the war, that Moscow is about to see a coup and Putin’s fate is sealed. But Putin’s popularity ratings in Russia have gone up to 80%. The reality for Ukraine is rather grim and will get worse each day that the war continues.
* Should the war spill beyond Ukraine there is a clear danger of the use of tactical nuclear weapons. The global economy struggling to recover from Covid has already suffered a serious setback. If the war continues it could be wrecked forever.
Maj Gen (Dr) G.D. Bakshi (Retd) is an Army veteran.
By arrangement with Indian Military Review.