A Full Circle by Second Anniversary of Russia-Ukraine Conflict
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM
Premise

The Russo-Ukraine war crossed its two-year mark on 22 Feb 2024.

This work is based on the premise that in the two years gone by, the war has come a ‘full circle’. How?

On 22 Feb 2022, Russia looked ‘strong and confident’ ready to do a Crimea; on 22 Feb 2024, Russia looks ‘strong and confident’ again. In support of the above premise, this work unfolds the major stages in the two years of the war, highlighting how the same has come a full circle.

Stage 1: Initial Euphoria and Unexpected Setbacks

Why this war ever happened in the first place? With no intention to dig deeper for an answer or analysis, this work will simply mention a few factors doing the rounds and move on; Ukraine’s proclivity towards NATO with western (read NATO) threat knocking at the gate of Moscow, threat of neo-Nazism and the need to demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine (as claimed by Russia), looming threat of weapons of mass destruction making their way closer to Russia.[1] (not amplified further)

Be that as it may, President Putin riding on the success of Crimea may have been confident of winding up his ‘Special Military Operation’ in a few days/weeks.

After all he had put in ‘all what was required’: -

  • A very strong pre-emptive strike force, complete with front-ranking strike aircraft (Mig 29s, SUs 25, 25SM, 27, 30, 35) formidable attack helicopters (Kamov 51 and 52 and Mig series- Mi 8, 24, 24P, 28, 35), Long range land attack missiles (OTR 21 Tochka, 9k720 Iskander, Kalibr etc.) and a moderate mix of guns and Howitzers.[2]
  • The President may have thought that the two main aims of such a strong pre-emptive punch will be achieved with ease. What aims? a) Killing maximum of the Ukrainian air assets (strike aircraft, attack helicopters (AHs), associated infra like runways, ATCs, control nodes etc.) on ground and b) Killing Ukrainian air defences by taking out the sensors that detect the air threat and destroying air defence control nodes that execute the fast-fleeting target engagements. [3]
  • With Ukrainian air power, out of the way leading to achievement of ‘air supremacy’ and its air defences blinded, it would only be a matter of a few days of blitzkrieg by the mammoth Russian war machine to bring Ukraine to its knees; a la Crimea!. [4] That was the thought presumably.

Unfortunately, none of the above aims could be achieved to the degree required. Why so? The answer to this poser is a vertical by itself. Only some major reasons are cited here; a) A majority of Ukrainian air assets were under concrete - could not be destroyed b) Most of the air defence control nodes were secured underground – could not be destroyed c) Target intelligence was inadequate - much munitions went astray d) ‘Surprise’ (a key requirement of pre-emptive strike) was probably lost (uncorroborated).[5]

Post-strike, two realities stared the Russians in their face: -

  1. Ukrainian Air Force survived to fight another day.
  2. Ukrainian air defences mostly remained alive to counter the Russian onslaught

The battle-skies remained contested. [6]

Stage 2: Blitzkrieg– A Volley of Mistakes and Massacre

With whatever the pre-emptive strike achieved or failed to do so, the Russian war machine rolled in for the kill in a kind of blitzkrieg heading for Kiev and Kharkiv. This machine had all the colours of the VIBGYOR. There were hundreds of deadly tanks (T72s, T 80s, T 84s, T 90s), Armoured Personnel Carriers or APCs (GTUs, MT-LB, PTS.) Infantry Fighting vehicles or IFVs (BMP 1,2,3,4, BTR 4, YPR 765 etc.), multi-barrel rocket launchers; MBRLs (BM21, BM30, 9A 52-4 etc.), air defence weapons, guns and howitzers, all thrusting forward in great confidence of crushing all that came its way. [7]
The initial onslaught was met with fear of its awesome power. There were reports of the ground thrust making a headway well into the gut of the Ukrainian mainland. Slowly it kind of met its nemesis as outlined below: -[8]

  • The convoy was met with resolute resistance from Ukrainian fighters and civilians alike. Mainly three types of weapons caused maximum damage. These were a) Anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), b) Drones and c) Short range man portable air defence systems (MANPADs).
  • Besides the indigenous inventory, the US and the west pumped in large number of ATGMs (US- Javelin, and HIMARS, i.e. high mobility artillery rocket system, Sweden- RBS-70, Netherland - NLAW).
  • The Drone power besides indigenous was represented by the Turkish TB2 Bayractar drone , US Switchblade kamikaze machines, Iranian Shahed 136 and Germanium -2 etc.
  • The MANPADS were plenty with Ukraine (indigenous – Strela2, 3, Igla,1/1S, UK-star-streak, US-Stinger, South Korea - Chiron, France-Mistral etc.).

The ATGMs and drones inflicted disproportionate casualties on advancing columns. Any number of live streaming videos showed graveyards of Russian tanks, APCs, IFVs, and air defence weapons. The MANPADS also had an effective shooting-run. These were proliferated in large numbers in every nook and corner of the Tactical Battle Area (TBA) from where they took pot-shots especially on many AHs (in particular Kamovs 51/52s). The number of MANPADS was so many and their deployment so diverse in the TBA that the AHs, as well as, strike aircraft, though armed with missile approach warning sensors, and active and passive countermeasures etc. could not detect and kill all. As per one open source, in a matter of just 4 months (24 Feb to 27 Jun22), Russians lost some 39 aircrafts and 26 AHs – that is huge number. [9]

How come the mighty Russian war machine took such heavy battering? Many reasons are doing the rounds, some blatantly seen on live videos others inferred by domain experts. The salient ones are stated: -

  • The rolling war machine was actually a ‘monolith’ which grinded slowly as hundreds of deadly war machines ‘huddled one behind the other’ moved on in long-winding columns.
  • It was most surprising to see the Russian mechanised elements not moving tactically but in this manner. Bereft of professionalism? Out of Training? Too long without war? Whatever may have been the reason.
  • Equally painful was to see the deadly air defence weapons which could have played merry hell into the Ukrainian air threat – moving as convoy serials (sic) instead of leap-frogging fire-unit wise and protecting the mechanised forces. A kamikaze drone piercing through the huge acquisition and tracking radar of an S-300 system- it was simply unbelievable but true.[10]
  • Also, the drones had a Tora-Tora-Tora moment as Russian ground-based air defence weapons inventory showed a near absence of a counter-drone-specific weaponry.
  • There were also reports of poor communication linkages for artillery, air-to-ground control communications and a rather muted performance of Russian Electronic Warfare (EW) arsenal.

The blood bath which Russians received was much of their own making. [11]

Stage 3: Change of Gear; the God of War Ushered In

Things continued to move at this bloody pace as Russian casualties (much higher than Ukrainian) continued to pile. An open-source report around this time (17 Jul 2022) stated that a whopping 1700 Russian tanks and other armoured vehicles had been destroyed by Ukraine. [12]

As losses on a headlong-contact battle were becoming rather untenable, a change of gear became visible in the Russian Camp sometime by Aug-Oct 2022. The manoeuver forces started to avoid headlong contact battles with their enemy, instead the they chose the option of massive fire assaults on the objective prior to the contact battle. The intensity fire assaults were so huge that it not only pulverized the target, but also, sometimes broke the will of the defenders to stay put. At places, the defenders vacated their positions without a fight allowing the follow-on forces to take over the objective with little or no resistance. (Case in point – attack on the city of Lysychansk; city vacated without a fight).[13]

Big guns boomed (2S19 MSTA 150mm self-propelled (SP) Howitzer (How), 2S35 Koalitsiya 155mm SP How, 2A 36 Giatsint 152 mm towed how, Heavy 2S 7M Malka 203mm heavy guns, 81mm/82mm/120 mm Mortars etc.). These were joined by MBRLs and missiles mentioned earlier. At the peak of artillery assaults Russians were firing some 20,000 – 30,000 shells on a single day. [14]

The Ukrainians realising that the entire ammunition delivery chain was based on road/rail, struck at many ammunition convoys and even targeted ammunition depos (Case in point – attacks on ammunition depots in Crimea, Kherson etc.) [15]

Stage 4: Exploiting a Weakness

Towards the closing months of 2022, Ukraine realised the glaring weakness in the counter-drone capability of the Russian war machine. A big push was started to ramp up drone production. The first significant success was a crippling drone strike on 29 Oct 2022 by Ukraine on the Russian Black Sea Fleet damaging four warships including the Flagship Admiral Makarov. [16]

The period Oct-Dec 2022 saw the birth of the Ukrainian ‘Army of Drones’ under the Dy PM Mykhailo Fedorov. Many hundreds of small DIY variety of drones capable of carrying a few grams to a few kg of warhead was developed. [17] In Nov-Dec 22, the drone war intensified. In Feb-Mar 23 it entered Russian territory with increasing number of attacks on Russian border areas reaching all the way to Kremlin! In the period May 2023 to Sept 2023 some 190 drone attacks were carried out in Russian territory. [18]
So much has been the influence of drone power for Ukraine that on 06 Feb 2024, President Zelensky signed a decree for the creation of a separate branch of Ukrainian Armed Forces dedicated to drones. This decree provides for raising of Drone units, ramping up training, pushing up production and driving innovations. [19]

Stage 5: Inflict a Dark Cold Winter and Firm Up

Towards the end of 2022 when the winter was intensifying and the massed artillery fire assaults were providing a slow push forward to Russians (though not without significant wastages in ammunition and loosing huge stockpiles to Ukrainian attacks on Depots and supply lines) a little push down was visible on the erstwhile ‘northbound’ figures of tank/APCs/IFVs/AHs losses. At this stage two actions of Russians could not escape notice: -

  • Huge drone and missile attacks focussed on taking out the Ukrainian power grid and support structures. [20], [21]
  • A gradual pull back and dig in to create defences in multiple layers; the alignment was generally along Kupiansk-Kreminna, Bakhmut, Robotyne, Mariupole [22] (see map). Multiple layers were represented by various lines. Surovikin Line in SE Ukraine (named after Gen. Sergey Surovikin), Wagner line built by Wagner paramilitary group in Eastern Ukraine etc. [23]
  • The defences were solid. The front-face rested on a variety of anti-tank and anti-personal mines. These were bulk laid by using the Zemledeliye Mobile mine layer truck. This truck does not ‘lay mines; it ‘fires’ mines. The vehicle has 50-barrel multiple launch rocket system. Each barrel can fire 120mm rockets loaded with mines of various types! [24]
  • Behind the mines lay a labyrinth of tunnels (WWII style) dug mechanically and re-enforced with wood and manned by personal with small arms and battalion level support weapons. Strong artillery and air defence weapons were now deployed properly in support of the defended areas. [25]
  • The Russian air power also was now operating over own defences rather than in contested skies. Any number of streaming videos showed SU24s, SU34s, 35s and MiG29s duly augmented by their rotary comrades (KA 51/52, Mi8, Mi24, Mi 28 etc.) engaging in duels with Ukrainian air power and scoring good number of kills on the Ukrainian armoured thrust lines (just the opposite of Feb 2022). It was also reported that this time around, the Russian Aerospace Forces were also able to establish a localised air superiority in the airspace over the defended area. [26]
  • Russian EW Systems which could not realise their true potential in the initial days of the war due to being frittered away in penny packets across multiple thrust lines and compelled to play low as not to jam own systems moving in parallel) also bloomed up in fire unit strengths behind defensive lines. The Radar jammers (Krashuka II and Krashuka 4), VHF/UHF jammers (RB341V, Leer3), GPS and SATCOM jammers (RH 330 ZHITEL), Long range HF jammers (Murmank-BN), airborne fire control radar jammers (SPN 2,3,4) and anti-drone jammers (repellent etc.) all slowly came to form and showed their capability to jam GPS-guided weapons, HIMARS, Scalp EG Cruise missiles, storm-shadow missiles, M982 Excalibur arty shells and a large number of drones. [27]
  • Well aware of the hammering they suffered in the initial months of the war due to small drone threat, huge investments were made by Russia to muscle up in this area. Not only a lot of counter drone weapons (LPD 820, LPD 801, PARS-S etc.) started reaching the front lines, a large number of Iranian drones (Shahed 129s and Shahed 136s) coupled with indigenous drone power (Lancet family Orlan 10 etc.) were also pressed in.
  • The above started to show effects on two counts; a) The initial free run of the drones of the Ukrainian Army of Drones was somewhat reigned in b) Significant damage could be inflicted on Ukrainian energy grid by kamikaze drone strikes. [28]
Stage 6: Counteroffensive and Aftermath

Question that needs to be asked is what defeated the Hitler’s 6th Army and forced them to capitulate on 02 Feb 1943 on the snowy battlefield of Stalingrad? It was due to Russian winter and the resolve of Russian defenders. [29]

Russians are known to be very strong defenders. With the defence lines as strong as above, the outcome of the Ukrainian counter offensive could not be any different than a ‘stalemate’ (a remark that cost the previous Chief of Ukrainian Army Gen Valery Zaluzhny his job!). [30] Some salient points: -

  • Not that it lacked the punch. Some 12 Brigades of boots-on-ground totalling some 50-60K manpower embracing various operational core-competencies were consolidated as assault brigades, mechanised brigades, marine brigades, air mobile brigades besides territorial defence forces and personnel from Volunteer Army. [31]
  • Besides the indigenous inventory the counter offensive force had a truly global signature – the Patriots, HIMARS, Bradley and Strykers from US, the Challengers Main Battle Tanks from UK, Leopard Tanks from Germany, Artillery, MBRLs, ATGMs, MANPADs, Cruise missiles, laser guided rockets, GPS guided bombs and shells. [32]
  • A blitzkrieg type of operation was envisaged that would pierce through the Russian defences and will head to the Sea of Azov capturing Mariupol. This would achieve two aims; a) Cut the Russian defences into two which could be decimated in detail later and b) Open a land Bridge to Crimea for bringing pressure on Russian defences from land frontier.
  • It will be incorrect to say that the counteroffensive failed. It had its share of successes though minor. In all, Ukraine managed to capture some 370 sq. km of territory (wrested back less than half of what they yielded to the attacking Russian forces). The more significant successes were scored by Ukraine on the Black Sea fleet. Besides the devastating drone attack on 29 Oct 2023 as stated earlier, reports as latest as 14 Feb 2024 indicate that the Ukrainian missile and sea-drone attacks have destroyed a total of 25 Russian vessels till now. The recent casualties have been Missile ship Ivanovets and a Landing ship Caesar Kunikov. [33]
  • That said, not only the stated aim of the counteroffensive is far from being achieved, even the minimum goal of reaching the town of Tokmak has eluded the Ukrainians. [34]
  • The counteroffensive is today being called different names – ‘Stalemate’, slow-grind, partial success, failure etc.
A War Frozen in Time- Some Reflections

Compare Feb 2022, with Feb 2024: -

  • Feb 2022 - Russia appeared strong, poised at the Eastern and SE borders of Ukraine ready to repeat a Crimea.
  • Feb 2024 – Russia appears strong well dug in and holding its defences having nearly blunted a strong counteroffensive.

What happened in between can be viewed as a complete full circle: -

  • A pre-emptive strike that was only partially successful.
  • A kind of blitzkrieg with unprofessional execution that met resolute Ukrainian defenders.
  • A good hammering by the trio – MANPADS, ATGMs and Drones compelling the attacker to take disproportionate casualties.
  • Change of tactics by attacker – big guns come in.
  • The defenders, no more being offered ‘blitzkrieg blunder’ kills turning to drone power and exploiting a big weakness in the attacker’s arsenal. Continued luck with Drone power - a whole new Drone Branch is created.
  • The two-way seamless play of drone and missile power continues. Blood-bath battles take place at Bakhmut.
  • A strategic pull back by the attacker and digging in into a very strong defensive line.
  • Erstwhile defenders now turning attackers and undertaking a strong counteroffensive that though achieves little gains but remains well short of the main goal.
  • The war is frozen in time.

All along this course, the ‘global war is well oiled and sustained by continuous external support from the US and the West. [35]

  • Total aid by US till now $ 76.9 Bn (military hardware – $46.6 Bn, Financial aid – $26.4 Bn. Humanitarian aid - $3.9 Bn) [36]
  • Total aid by EU till now - $96 Bn (military + financial + humanitarian) [37]
  • Total number of countries that have sent aid to Ukraine in one form of the other – 45 sovereign countries, companies and other parties. [38]

Where lies the future of this aid?

  • On 13 Feb 2024, the US Senate has passed a $95 Bn aid package that includes Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel. The Bill however faces a tough call at the House of Representatives where Republicans are in majority. The passage of the bill is being linked to the more urgent border changes and migration laws. [39] Likelihood of passage uncertain.
  • EU has promised an aid package of €50 Bn ($54Bn) after overcoming the veto by Hungary. [40]

President Zelensky knows very well that ‘unending aid’ will become increasingly difficult as time rolls. This is especially so when the earlier aid has not achieved the results (counteroffensive).

The President is therefore, looking at long-lasting security relationship based on bilateral arrangements. It was reported on 17 Feb 2024 that Ukraine has signed bilateral security agreements with Germany and France. This was preceded by a long-term support agreement between Ukraine and UK signed in Jan 2024.
Where does that leave Russia? A few excerpts from the Interview of President Putin to former Fox News host, Tucker Carlson: -

  • ‘The conflict developed as a result of NATO expansionism that posed a political threat to Russia’.
  • ‘US aid to Ukraine amounts to a provocation’.
  • ‘It is impossible to defeat Russia’.
  • ‘We were always open to dialogue’.

Bottom-line – The Russian economy grew by 3.6% in 2023 leaving behind US and Europe – that much for impact of 12 packages of sanctions on Russia! [41]

What lies ahead – the war is not ending anytime soon- second anniversary and counting.

Endnotes

[1] “Russo-Ukraine War,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 10 Feb 2024.
[2] “An year of air and air defence war,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 10 Feb 2024.
[3] Ibid.
[4] 636 days and counting- which way the wind blows now?” at www.indiandefencereview .com
[5] 2Ibid
[6] “List of aircraft losses during Russo-Ukraine war.” At www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 12 Feb 2024.
[7] “List of Russo-Ukrainian war military equipment, “at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 12 Feb 2024.
[8] ‘Changing shades of Russian weapon deployment in Ukraine war,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 12 Feb 2024.
[9] “Ukraine blew up 2300+ Russian tanks…”at www.quora.com. Accessed on 12 Feb 2024.
[10] The changing contours of the air and air defence war in Ukraine,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 12 Feb 2024.
[11] 2 ibid
[12] “Russia has lost 50,000 troops in Ukraine..,’ at www.rferl.org. Accessed on 12Feb 2024.
[13] “The power of the God of war – assessing the Russian advantage in artillery,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 15 Feb 2024.
[14] ibid
[15] “Ukraine strikes ammunition depots in Crimea,” at www.pbs.org. Accessed on 12 Feb 2024.
[16] “2022 drone attack on the Sevastopol Naval Base,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 12 Feb 2024.
[17] “Ukraine’s Army of Drones sets all time record,” at www.pravada.com.ua. Accessed on 13 Feb 2024.
[18] “What do we know about drone attacks n Russia,” at www.bbc.com Accessed on 13Feb 2024.
[19] “Zelensky: Ukrainian Military to create separate branch dedicated to drones, “at www.kyivindependent.com. Accessed on 13 Feb 2024.
[20] “Ukraine: Russian attacks on Energy Gridthreatens civilians,”at www.hrw.org. Accessed on 13 Feb 2024.
[21] “Russia’s attacks on Ukraine energy sector have escalated again as winter sets in,” at www.iea.org. Accessed on 13 Feb 2024.
[22] 4ibid.
[23] “Russian defence lines during the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 16 Feb 2024.
[24] “Russian Army deploys new ISDM Zemledeliye mine layer<” at www.armyrecognition.com. Accessed on 16 Feb 2024.
[25] 23 ibid.
[26] “How Ukraine fought against Russia’s air war.” At www.lawfaremedia.org. Accessed on 16 Feb 2024
[27] “Russian electronic warfare tactics changing on frontlines in Ukraine,” at www.businessinsider.com. Accessed on 16 Feb 2024.
[28] “No power in many Ukrainian homes after Russian drone attack. Accessed on 16 Feb 2024.
[29] “The brutal battle of Stalingrad explained,” at www.britannica.com. Accessed on 16 Feb 2024.
[30] “Ukraine General: Counter offensive against Russia has reached a stalemate,” at wwwaxios.com. Accessed on 16 Feb 2024.
[31] 2023 Counteroffensive,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 16 Feb 2024.
[32] Ibid.
[33] “How Ukraine sank the Ceasar Kunikov – and is beating Russia at sea,” at www.economist.com. Accessed on 17 Feb 2024.
[34] 31 ibid
[35] 28 ibid
[36] “How much aid has US sent to Ukraine,” at www.cfr.org. Accessed on 17 Feb 2024.
[37] EU assistance to Ukraine.” At ww.eeas.europa.eu. Accessed on 17 Feb 2024.
[38] “List of military aid to Ukraine during the Russo-Ukraine War.”at www,en.m.wikipedia.org Accessed on 17 Feb 2024.
[39] “Ukraine aid passes US Senate faces uphill battle in House,” at www.bloomberg.co. Accessed on 17 Feb 2024.
[40] “EU seals deal for 50 billion euros aid package for Ukraine overcoming Hungary’s veto threat,” at www.pbs.org. Accessed on 18 Feb 2024.
[41] “International sanctions during Russo-Ukrainian war,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed on 18 Feb 2024.

(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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