Russo-Ukraine War 2022: Sifting the Maze of Russian Political Policy and Military Strategy
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The best teacher of war is war itself! With a month behind us of the Russo-Ukraine war, it is imperative to rationalise and focus on the war itself, without referral to logic behind the war, the global geopolitics and weaponisation of economics and globalisation. With the plethora of largely one-sided narratives, it is Herculean to sift through and piece together a rational explanation of the whys and wherefores.

Indeed, the Russian policy-makers and political hierarchy at the outset must have determined that this war is worth fighting, with its costs, consequences and ramifications. In the pre-emption to it, the military brass would have candidly and directly advised on military strategy, the options available, the appreciation of the defenders leaders and their will to fight, military training, wherewithal, and culture and values and conduct of campaign. The political hierarchy thence would have established the policy and guided the military in strategising and selecting the option to conduct of the war towards a military end-state that would lend to the envisaged political end game. In the visualisation of politics of war and its mediatisation, and the envisaged future peace, the political policy would have laid inviolable parameters and restrictions for the military operations – like it happened in the Indian case of no use of Air Force in 1962 or no crossing of Line of Control in 1999! Political policy and military strategy become equally accountable for the conduct of war.

The conduct of the campaign reflected Russian political policy that affected military strategy. The likely Russian Political Policy on the war can be examined in four foundational parts:

  • First, President Putin’s 21 Feb 2022 speech underscored the political policy for the war, “… Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us... it is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space. (Ukrainians) …are our comrades, those dearest to us – not only colleagues, friends and people who once served together, but also relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties.” Russian President Vladimir Putin had often expressed the view that Russians and Ukrainians, as well as Belarusians, are one people – ‘a nation divided’. As per some estimates, there were approximately three million Ukrainian citizens living in Russia in 2018, including migrant workers who send remittances back home – and though many are Russian citizens now, yet consider Ukraine as their homeland. Though Ukrainians had held positive view of the Russian people, the 2004 Orange Revolution, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the insurgency that followed in Donbass and the allure of economic prosperity of the European Union, has greatly enhanced the Ukrainian identity. It would include a strong anti-Russian animus. However, the Russian hierarchy has seemingly considered the people-to-people relationship in making the war-policy.
  • Second, since 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia had channelled billions of dollars to restore Crimea’s infrastructure, such as the $3.7bn, 19 km-long bridges linking the peninsula to mainland Russia over Kersch Straits inaugurated in 2018. The population of Crimea however lost its markets for its products in Southern Ukraine. The worst was that the Soviet-built North Crimean Canal that took off from Dnieper River at Kherson supplied 85% of water for agriculture and use of the population of Crimea. Ukraine had shut down the canal in 2014, nearly obliterating agriculture in Crimea and forcing rationing water supply in urban centres for three hours a day on weekdays and for five hours on weekends. There was hence massive shrinkage in the area under cultivation in Crimea, from 130,000 hectares in 2013 to just 14,000 in 2017. Southern military offensive from Crimea, and restoration of water supply to Crimea from Kherson would have been a political policy diktat.
  • Third, ‘denazification’ has been a stated political aim of Russia and the Azov Battalion defending Mariupol, and other similar outfits in the restive regions of Donbass has often been cited as an ultra-rightist outfits. Indeed, the military uniforms of the Azov unit feature Nazi insignia and its fighters have been photographed with tattoos of Nazi symbols such as the swastika and its troops have a Nazi-style raised-fist salute. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International, have accused Azov fighters, and other volunteer battalions, of human rights violations, including torture, kidnappings, and extra-judicial executions. In 2015, the US Congress passed a resolution denying military aid for Ukraine for funding, arming or training the Azov Battalion. There have also been attempts to designate the Azov Battalion as a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organisation’. Since this unit is located in Mariupol, the capture of the city became a political policy.
  • Fourth, the above statement has given indication on the focus on the “main goal, liberation of Donbas”. Donbas, once the centre of Soviet heavy industry, plays a highly symbolic role. The Donbas is Ukraine's industrial heartland, with its coal-based economy, the coalfields extending across the east to Russian territory, with extractable reserves estimated at over 10 billion tons. About a quarter of the population of the east overall are ethnic Russians. In essence, it's a very mixed population. Numerous companies in eastern Ukraine provide important raw materials and products to Russia - especially for the Russian space and defence industries. Twelve types of Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles, along with spare parts and maintenance, come from the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk alone. In the Donbas, special steel is produced for the tanks of the Russian armed forces, and most Russian combat helicopters fly with engines from Zaporizhia. The self-proclaimed Donetsk People's and the Luhansk People's Republics held referendums in May 2014, which showed ‘about 90% of the population were in favour of independence from Ukraine’. These Republics were officially recognised by President Putin ahead of the war. Mariupol is part of Donbas, and is located towards the region’s southern extremities on the Sea of Azov coast.

The course of the war, even with the in-depth knowledge that the Russian political and military hierarchy had of Ukraine and its military and irregular forces prowess, cannot be pre-determined. Wars can never be linear, conditions would change, there would be mistakes and the adversary gets to vote in response strategy! The US and allied forces in their Blitzkrieg with their preponderance of firepower and technology, total domination of the skies, narrow front in open terrain and inept Iraqi defence, took over 40 days in 2003 to take on Baghdad. Similarly, the war against Taliban in Afghanistan would have not have ended in such a manner after twenty years in 2021!

War is a constant teacher, albeit very brutal and costly one. As the war commenced, three paramount issues become clear:

  • It is evident that mass concentration of Russian Forces over months prior to the war, became potentially a weakness, as movement in the battle space was clearly discernable by commercial and military technologies. There was but no advantage left of surprise or even deception at scale, even of broad timings and to an extent, intentions. Mass mobilisation, even deceptive concentrations and movements in 21st century cannot be hidden to the discerning analysts with state-of-the-art technology at the beck and call. There was no SHOCK, hence, of the Russian Armed Forces offensive, in any and all axes.
  • In hindsight, the US Intelligence reports had nearly correctly estimated that the Russians plans involved extensive movement of 100 odd battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel, along with armour, artillery and equipment. Being an intensively urban-city based environment, this force was dissipated over a very large multi-axial front, obviating any AWE to the Ukrainians of asymmetrically large and modern armed forces.
  • Eastern Ukraine demography is largely Russian language speaking or ethnic Russians – as in Kharkiv and Donbass. However, apparently these were unrealistic assumptions of public support, and the population did not rise in support of the Russian offensive, which may have forced some innovation to military plans.

It is obvious that since 2014 annexation of Crimea, the war seemed on the horizon, and with NATO military support and training, Ukraine was preparing for it. Cumulated with the very wide international support and well planned supportive mediatisation, there was little SHOCK and AWE, and hence no early capitulation of Ukrainian Government and Military Forces.
As the war commenced, the international media indicated grave damage to the cities as inimical propaganda against Russia and to build international opinion. The Indian audio-visual media was equally aggressive in showing gory destruction visuals repeatedly, to retain viewer attention, competitively! With the hindsight of over one month’s military operations, and in the light of above examined political policy underpinnings, it is necessary to sift through the fog and contemplate execution of the military strategy.

  • This political policy that would have affected the military strategy is Concept of Military Application of Force. The military strategy dictates the military force concentrated and applied for decisive military objectives. The appreciated quantum of Russian military ground force arrayed, did not indicate plans for capture of cities of Kyiv and its suburbs and Kharkiv. Limited force levels was applied on both sides of River Dnieper through Belarus towards Kyiv, or offensives towards Sumy and Kharkiv, clearly indicated that Russian military’s strategy of NOT capturing major cities and getting embroiled in urban guerrilla (irregular) warfare. The use of famed massive firepower of the Russian military was seemingly very restricted.
    It must be stated that war is dirty business, a gravely destructive endeavour, and there has been loss of lives and property, but nothing closely akin to what had been witnessed in other wars even in the 21st century. In one month of hindsight, this was no-Grozny, Fallujah, Baghdad, Raqqa or Aleppo in the kind of urban damage and plastering/ annihilation of cities. The proximate location of Russian forces around Kyiv and its suburbs, Sumy and Kharkiv, and the seeming lack of progress in capturing them, with the audio-visuals/ social media extolling the Ukrainian resistance and damage to Russian equipment, did however point towards Russian offensive having well-nigh bogged down!
  • Templating from previous 21st century wars, at the outset it was appreciated that Russia Air Forces would quickly destroy Ukrainian Air Force and Air Defence assets to achieve air superiority. It is apparent that Russia’s air force has played a minimal role, and relied on volleys of cruise and ballistic missiles towards Ukraine’s air bases in an attempt to ground its planes and air-defence systems, and against radars and anti-aircraft missiles sites.
  • Russian military offensive from Crimea to Ukraine mainland was fierce, strongly weighted in force levels and firepower, which ensured early capture of Kherson and restoration of water flow to the canal linking the Dnieper River to Crimea within 48 hours. It is reported that Kherson changed hands many a time, but its capture was part of the policy end-game for Russia, and hence a given military strategy. Ukraine armed forces anticipated strong offensive towards Donbass, and had apparently planned for stoic defence. This along with the strong defence by the Azov Battalion at Mariupol, apparently denied early capture, and link up with the Kharkiv offensive of the Southern offensive from Crimea.
  • Russian offensives into Western Ukraine have been limited to missile strikes at seemingly military establishments. Apparently, the Special Operations training center located near the town of Ovruch 15 miles and NATO-Ukraine pfp (Partnership for Peace) Centre at Yavoriv, 10km from the Polish border were targeted with several missiles, some reportedly hypersonic. There have been no signs of any plans for a ground offensive.
  • With Russian offensive into Ukraine, analysts worldwide had warned about the danger of catastrophic cyber attacks. Indeed, in the days leading up to the war, hackers had defaced Ukrainian websites, unleashed malware on government systems, and targeted the country’s banking system—albeit with limited effect. As no cyber-Armageddon materialized, yet the threat still exists. Only time will tell, if the alarmism of cyber threat being the biggest existential threat, like a digital Pearl Harbour, is overblown or over hyped, or the threat of severe reciprocity becomes a deterrent.

Military history will become the best judge of the rationale and conduct of the war. It can be surmised that the enunciation of Political Policy for the war by the Russian hierarchy, took cognizance of the close relations between the populations of Russia and Ukraine, and the end-game that seeks not to have an inimical Ukraine. The Russian political policy parameters hence caused military strategy for offensive against Ukraine to envisage discriminate military force and restraints on its application. Restraints were accordingly built into the Russian military strategy, like the cities were not to be militarily captured and damaged any more than collateral or legitimate military targets. Exceptions are those imperative for the political plan, like Luhansk and Donetsk, Mariupol and Kherson. The firepower employed hence was limited, to avoid causing mass destruction in the urban centres. There were humanitarian corridors established (rarity by itself in warzones), the trains kept transporting refugees to safety and the internet services were not curbed.

It is also apparent that Russia did not wish to get stuck in war of attrition, and seemingly opted for use of military force for coercion with limited goals, vying for early capitulation of Ukraine. However, in the past one month, Russian military has captured over 100,000 square km of territory from West of Kyiv to Kherson, along the periphery of the border between Russia and Ukraine. However, victory is not about territory, and commencing a war is always easier than to terminate, it, more so in declaring success. There is no past template to bank upon! The Ukrainian population will remain infuriated of the war, and for Russian hierarchy to hope for a favourable Ukraine even if ostensibly neutral, will remain a fallacy.

In sum, is there lesson for India at this stage? Conventional wars are here to stay (despite non-kinetic and non-contact conflicts and engagements) and can commence with limited preparations or notice. Wars will have to be fought by India with own prowess and combat capabilities, with very limited, if any, assistance from friendly nations. In this context, most significant is the political policy and military strategy interface in conduct of war. The armed forces should build combat capabilities, train for and prepare for the uncertain future, in total consonance with the larger political policy, and on whose shoulders must ride the current military doctrine and future military strategy. If restrictions or restraints are envisaged in the political policy thinking, it is best now that the military hierarchy be aware of and makes plans for the same. There is also a need to professionalise information warfare. Case in point is the overdrive of Western (and Indian) media creating narratives, with much truth, many half truths and more blatant lies and fakery, showing gross failures of the Russian war machine and extolling the virtues of the stoic Ukrainian defence.

(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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