The Failed Epitaph (!) of Conventional War: Russo-Ukrainian War 2022
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Many a scholar and thinker had penned the epitaph of conventional wars as witnessed in the 20th Century. New formulations of grey zone and hybrid war, and the era of multi-domain cyber, space and informational wars had been unveiled. Yet, all too often the spectre of conventional wars looms large! Open and declared armed hostile conflicts/ clashes, inter-state or against non-state actors, have abounded in the last two decades, as in Darfur, Iraq, Syria, Russo-Ukrainian 2014, Armenia-Azerbaijan 2019 and India-China 2020.

Making predictions or drawing lessons from the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian 2022 conflict, in the prevailing fog, is fraught with dangers of premature analysis. Yet, the unfolded events of last two weeks necessitate their examination. In the context of the ongoing war in Europe, there are three propositions for examination. First is the key issue of why and wherefores of this war? An immense lot has been penned on the geographic openness of Ukraine-Russia border, historic links between Russia and Ukraine, the threat of expansion of NATO which made Russia not feel "safe, develop and exist" and for "demilitarisation and de-Nazification" of Ukraine. Ukraine has oft been stated by Russia as having been taken over by extremists, ever since President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in 2014. The ongoing conflict in the breakaway Oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk of the Eastern Donbas Region, has always kept the pitch queered. There is also the last straw of house-arrest last year of Viktor Medvedchuk the Pro-Russian leader of Ukraine's Opposition Platform - For Life Party, after the authorities opened treason case against him. President Putin is the God-father of Mr Medvedchuk’s daughter.

The ongoing conventional Russo-Ukrainian must come with a formulated political aim, interim and end states (even if kept under wraps), translated into military aims and objectives. This use of force is obviously by Russia to compel Ukraine to do its will. Reading the tea-leaves, what is ostensibly sought by Russia is ‘existential safety’, by having a pliant regime as existed pre-2014. Did this mandate a full scale conventional war, with one warring party having preponderant military superiority? In any case, the context of regime change is flawed, as the changed regime cannot be guaranteed to survive the will of the people. At this stage of the hostilities, the exact rationale for this war is for history to judge and rationalise!

Second, were there tell-tale signs for the oncoming onslaught? Indeed the preparations for war were on for a while; a window of opportunity was being created. There were Russian forces ‘exercising’ in proximity and in Belarus and the US Intelligence read the tea leaves. In hindsight, the US Intelligence reports had nearly correctly estimated that the Russians plans involved extensive movement of 100 battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel, along with armour, artillery and equipment. It becomes clear that mass concentration can potentially be a weakness, as movement in the battle space is clearly discernable by commercial and military technologies that can be analysed to exactitude. There was but no advantage left of surprise or even deception at scale by the Russian forces, except for timings and to an extent, intentions. As the army and navy (including amphibious ships from Kaliningrad to Black Sea) moved, it created the signals which were rightly analysed. That there was general geopolitical disbelief globally that a conventional war will occur is another matter, and this lulled the West into limited response.

Third, though the political end-game is yet to be played out, have the military operations indicated broad outline of plan and where does the end state lie? This is a difficult proposition to state, as intentions can change with geopolitical and geostrategic compulsions. Wars tend to take their own course after the first bullet is fired, as the opposing side has their counter plans too! War plans hence have to be dynamic, to cater for contingencies. The evident conduct of the operations in the last fortnight can be chronologically taken in five broad parts.

  • One, after months of will they, will they not, Russia recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) and signed treaties of “friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance” with them on 21 February 2022. Same day the Russian Duma voted to authorize the use of Russian military force to occupy the Republics. The Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics formally asked Russia to deploy Russian Armed Forces to Donbas, setting conditions for an immediate deployment of Russian ground forces at scale into Donbas and toward the line of contact and beyond. In many quarters this was incorrectly contemplated as the likely end of hostilities.
  • Two, Russian Forces commenced a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, calling it as special military operation. Russian military operations began with a short air campaign at around 4:00 am local time targeting Ukrainian air defences, supply depots, and airfields. However, portions of the Ukrainian Air Force remained operational and Ukrainian command and control appeared intact. Estimated initial strikes comprised over 100 missiles - mix of short and medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and sea-launched missiles. An estimated 75 Russian bombers participated in the attack. Russian forces attempted to capture Hostomel military airport, 20 km northwest of Kyiv, with Russian VDV (Airborne) troops and also tried to capture the Boryspil airport southeast of Kyiv. Russian ground forces rapidly advanced on four axes, North from Crimea, on Kyiv from Belarus on both sides of the Dnipro River and ingress towards cities of Sumy and Kharkiv and further in Donbas. Russian forces secured the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (on the west bank). It was apparent that Russia had not demonstrated its full air, missile and ground forces capabilities. It also became apparent that there was stiff resistance by the Ukrainian Forces.
  • Three, in the next three days till 28 Feb 2022, though the Russian Forces contacted Kyiv, Sumy, Kharkiv on multi-front, the progress of operations seemed slow, due to determined and well-organised Ukrainian resistance. There was little success on frontal assaults or envelopments against Ukrainian forces in Donbas. Russian troops seemingly faced severe logistics issues, along Ukraine’s northern border. In the Southern Military District and Black Sea Fleet (to its south and east), the progress was better with capture of Kherson and opening up axes towards Donbas. Ukrainian forces however, retook the critical port city of Kherson. Some Russian units remained west of the Dnipro River and advanced on Mykolaiv, and the main axes of advance seemed to have shifted to the north and east towards Zaporizhie and Mariupol.
  • Four, Russian forces seems to have taken an operational pause on 26-27 Feb in the North, and continued to refrain from using the full array of air and missile capabilities. However from Crimea they continued to slowly push north toward Zaporizhie and the south-eastern bend of the Dnipro River and east along the Azov Sea coast toward Mariupol. There was increasing targeting of Ukrainian airfields and logistics centres on 28 Feb, particularly in western Ukraine. It was also evident that Russian forces were deploying additional heavy forces and artillery that it has so far failed to employ in assaults on Kyiv to the city’s western approach. Meanwhile the first round of Russian-Ukrainian negotiations in Gomel, Belarus, failed to yield any agreement. Russia inexplicably heightened the global concerns by deciding to place Russian nuclear and missile forces on their combat readiness.
  • Five, there was a seeming change of tack in operations after the initial four days. Russian forces began using heavy artillery against central Kharkiv and Kyiv. Offensive operations were resumed against Kyiv’s western outskirts on 02 Mar by opening a new line of advance from Belarus south toward Zhytomyr Oblast. Russian forces also fully encircled Mariupol on 02 March. By 04 March in the South Kherson was finally taken over by the Russian Forces, and advance was resumed towards the all-important port of Odessa. East of Dnipro River, link was established by Russian Forces from Crimea with those at Donbas, though Mariupol still held on, presumably by the Azov Battalion of Ukrainian Army.

An analysis of the first nine days of operations from 24 Feb to 04 March has brought out the following significant issues:

  • Apparently, the first four days of operation of Russian Forces indicated a sub-optimal use of firepower – air force, missiles and heavy artillery they are renowned for. It can be deduced hence that there was an appreciation of quick capitulation of Ukrainian Government and Forces, and intensive support of ethnic Russian people East of River Dnipro. These hopes were belied. The belligerence of information warfare, the stridence in diplomatic discussions, large concentration of force and exercises for four months, the initial four days of operations was seemingly strong coercion to force Ukraine to relent to Russian demands. The repeated capture and loss of Hostomel military airport and Kherson Port are cases in point of the stout resistance of Ukrainian Forces. Since there was stronger resistance than expected and no matching ground between Russia and Ukraine, the next phase commenced with much larger push of the offensive.
  • The weight of the offensive of the Russian Forces from 28 Feb to 04 March has shown:
    • Thrust from Donbas and from Crimea East of River Dnipro aims at connecting the land bridge to Crimea. Mariupol that still holds out will face the brunt of the offensive hereinafter. The offensive from Crimea West of River Dnipro had been successful in taking hold of Kherson and is bound towards Mykolayiv and the third largest city, Odessa. Overall the progress has been credible. A continuous arc from Rostov-on-Don to Donbas along the Sea of Azov, Black Sea, Odessa and Romanian border is likely to join up with the restive pro-Russian region of Transnistra in Moldova. The damage caused to the nuclear reactor is, however, inexplicable.
    • The thrusts towards Kyiv from East and West of Dnipro through Belarus and Belarus-Russia-Ukraine junction and from Sumy, will aim to isolate the Capital City, hoping for a capitulation of the Government. This is bound to become a slogging match, with large Ukrainian irregular forces and public. The likely damage to the city may be the resultant effect, if a solution is not found sooner. Kharkiv, though a Russian-speaking city has held on, and has faced the brunt of the offensive. The offensive should continue.
    • There has been limited focus on targeting West of Dnipro and towards border regions of Poland, Slovakia and Moldova. Military assistance and volunteers from the neighboring countries will pour-in ad lib, to an largely ethnic Ukrainian region, giving the impression that Russian Forces have limited interest in spreading the conflict West of River Dnipro less for the areas in proximity to Black Sea.
    • Continual operations will soon transform towards irregular warfare with local public and the Ukrainian soldiers utilizing the plethora of anti-tank weapons like the Javelins and NLAWs and the hand-held surface to air missiles like Stingers and improvised devices like Molotov Cocktails. This raises the specter of a very long drawn insurgency-like situation.
  • The War has been accompanied by very large number of cyber-attacks from all sides, with hackers having a wide range of allegiances. Hours before the invasion began, there was a “new round of offensive and destructive cyber-attacks directed against Ukraine’s digital infrastructure,” Microsoft Corp. said in a 28 Feb blog post. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict illustrates the increasing importance of digital attacks as part of a kind of hybrid warfare. It must be however stated the cyber war has not indicated the devastating image that had been envisaged, though the likelihood of it increasing in intensity exists.

In sum, the geopolitical and geostrategic ramifications of the War are already very large, and may have long-term effect even after it is over. The war will also have intensive economic effects globally. The wanton destruction of the civilian infrastructure and habitat will have severe effects on Ukraine. The planned Russian end-game is yet in fog, though with the threat of hybrid war looming large, prudence may dawn to cease hostilities before the situation goes out of control. in June 2015 then US Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld, in a testimony to the House Committee on Armed Services had stated that: “Russian military doctrine includes what some have called an ‘escalate to deescalate’ strategy—a strategy that purportedly seeks to deescalate a conventional conflict through coercive threats, including limited nuclear use.” Escalate to De-escalate may be the Russian Military Doctrine. However, the de-escalation will depend also on Ukraine and its large repertoire of supporting nations. It may soon become difficult for Russian Forces to disengage or de-escalate!

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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