It’s interesting how we all have become experts at dissecting the Russia - Ukraine conflict. From drawing implications, firming up imperatives, being judgmental, taking sides, changing sides mid way, playing on to a western narrative, crucifying Putin, prophesying the Armageddon, foreseeing the doom of the tanks, claiming that drones and swarms are the future of war, betting on a short conflict, losing our bets, changing to a long drawn conflict due to missing Russian exiting strategy, Ukrainians fighting an outsourced war, Chechen rebels making melee, Russians losing localised battles big time, China against new weapon systems being pumped into Ukraine and above all the ENERGY WAR.
Many of us actually laughed at the Russians. That they couldn’t achieve the objective that they initially aimed for. Of breaking the Ukrainian national will of proximity to Europe, of NATO finding a base bordering Russia, for an existential threat in being created, right in Russia’s back door. We saw carcasses of Russian equipment (But we also need to know that Russia had sent only a few dozen newer model T-90 tanks to the war, most Russian tanks in Ukraine were and are T-72 variants. These are based on Soviet technology that is nearly fifty years old). These were destroyed by improvised Ukrainian weapon systems, armed drones, UCAVs etc. we saw videos and pictures of tanks and artillery guns being towed by tractors. Captured equipment being recycled against the Russians. Above all the Ukrainian army which was a rag tag group of a few men, bolstered itself with volunteers to fight the mighty Russians.
We saw sanctions upon sanctions by the Western world. But who got hit the most was energy dependents in Europe. There is an anecdote that Putin narrates about a German dad answering his son about the war,
Son: Dad, I am feeling cold, why isn’t the heating system
Dad: It‘s because Russia attacked Ukraine
Son: What has it to do with us?
Dad: Because we put sanctions against the Russians and blocked their trade.
Dad: So that they feel bad and realise their mistake.
Son: You mean to say we are Russians?
To even go deeper into the conflict, Russia initially was emptying their vintage equipment and garbage which merely occupied garage space. Tanks and armory of 1970s vintage. They targeted only military targets, most civilian targets were those being used by the Ukrainian Army as hiding places or operational bases. They deliberately did not target facilities that provided electricity and water. Civilian targets were collateral damage. Many a time it was proven that it was the Ukrainians that targeted conspicuous targets towards their propaganda warfare and to involve the Western world with a persecuted narrative.
Suddenly we have an unknown entity who walks freely with the media in Kiev. Travels the world asking for assistance. Deliberating on the Ukrainian crisis as a war for justice, where it’s a conflict between progressive ideologies and a savage seeking power, which is also a threat to democracy. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, suddenly became the most famous man in the world who had the indomitable spirit of marginalising Putin. The resistance is an epic that needs to be documented and the stories of localised operations incorporated in military classrooms. But is this what this war is all about?
If Russia wanted it, they would have pulverised Ukraine into submission. The humanitarian crisis would have got the world involved. Setting a stage for another massive military exposition. Similar to the World War II. There would be sides taken, the anti - West ( specifically the US) and the new bloc, maybe consisting of indulgent countries like Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria and a few more. The combined largest world energy holders. The new dynamics would involve the fall of the dollar, setting up a new global currency in competition to the dollar. Playing Energy wars of winning more allies and reducing the western impact. A win win for China and Russia. Spelling the doom of the US and catalysing into a new arms race.
Is this then actually a war? The Christmas and new years celebrations in Moscow had the streets and pubs full of people who were partying as if there were no sanctions and everything was normal. There are no long lines for bread. The cars are running on the streets as always. People are going to work and are being paid as desirable. Putin has the assistance of China, non interference by India. He is being supplied weapons in exchange for energy including the latest technology. The war that was the sensational media news every morning is not even being spoken about anymore.
The Russians are fighting this war in Ukraine territory. What is getting destroyed is Ukrainian infrastructure. People who are getting displaced are only Ukrainians. The humanitarian crisis is in Ukraine. Yes there have been casualties and the figures are speculative. The Ukrainian and the Russian claims don’t match. The Russians too aren’t fighting this war with regular troops completely. They have irregulars being paid by war lords. The US estimates that 90 percent of the Wagner fighters killed in Ukraine since December 2022 were convicts. The Russians also have Chechens that are pro Russia fighting for them, known as Kadyrovtsy, after their leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
The BBC mentioned that the most senior US general estimates that around 100,000 Russian and 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or injured in the war in Ukraine. Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, also suggested that around 40,000 civilians had died after being caught up in the conflict.
The Ukrainians like the Russians have many foreign fighters from the former Soviet Union. These include fighters from Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Baltic states, Belarus and Georgia. Exiled Chechens opposed to Ramzan Kadyrov and some Russian dissidents that have also taken up arms on behalf of the Ukrainians. Some are doing it for ideologies, some just for fun, some to harness the loot and make money.
Kyiv today is willing to re-enter talks if Moscow offered "a window" for negotiations. This war is all about negotiations. It’s a war of fears and confirmations. They just need to sit across the table and could have done it in the beginning before the war, seriously and sincerely. Ukrainians had to just assure Russia that they would not let Ukrainian soil be used for deployment of foreign technology and forces. That the Russian military assets in and around Ukraine would be protected and access not denied. They would have a preferential MOU on trade and investment with Russia. That they would in all international forums on security and trade be supportive on a Russian cause if justified. Even if they could have found a mid course settlement of issues raised by give and take. This war would have been avoided. Talks however long still instill hope of a negotiable solution.
If we just take the number of casualties stated by both sides and the US. It’s almost devastating. But more so is the destruction of infrastructure which will when the war stops need major world intervention to resuscitate. The economics are just too huge. The refugee problem in other nations is catastrophic, resettling them is going to cost time and money. Ukraine doesn’t have it, the US and the West are almost facing a recession and have their own expenses. The countries with the money are China and the Middle East, but then nothing comes free and everything will cascade into debt traps.
While even now, Russia's leader describes the biggest European invasion since the end of World War II as a "special military operation". Not the full-scale war that the West is tom tomming about. Even Russia's first mobilisation since World War II, was only partial and limited to some 300,000 reservists. Is this all for just settling scores because a national ego wasn’t fed. Just yesterday 23 Feb 2023, India and 32 countries abstained from voting on Ukraine. In September 2022, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said in his address to the high-level U.N. General Assembly session that in this India is on the side of Peace, dialogue and diplomacy. “As the Ukraine conflict continues to rage, we are often asked whose side are we on. And our answer, each time, is straight and honest. India is on the side of peace and will remain firmly there. We are on the side that respects the UN Charter and its founding principles. We are on the side that calls for dialogue and diplomacy as the only way out”. India too doesn’t see this as a full scale conflict.
For the Russians it’s never been a full fledged war, while for the Ukrainians it has been a do or die, or at-least their president is making it seem as such. For the US it’s a war outsourced, the extended military situation in Ukraine to keep Russia occupied and force China to take sides suits their national strategy. For the NATO it’s a matter of prominence or losing face with the world, that their overtures went un- established. For the UN by the day it’s getting clearer that they are losing the credibility that they were founded on.
To the world, it’s become a testing ground for military technology, propaganda and information warfare, sub conventional application testing thresholds, localised conflicts, outsourced wars. Setting up theories for a new normal, activating the military mind, rather questioning if full scale conflicts are passé. Ukraine has shown resilience, the Russians have shown resolve. The world has taken sides and just displayed VULTURISTIC attitudes (trying to get their pounds of flesh). Will the Russians give back what they have occupied? Again quoting from BBC news, The biggest success President Putin can lay claim to is establishing a land bridge from Russia's border to Crimea, annexed illegally in 2014, so it is no longer reliant on its bridge over the Kerch Strait. He has spoken of the capture of this territory, which includes the cities of Mariupol and Melitopol, as a "significant result for Russia". The Sea of Azov, inside the Kerch Strait, "has become Russia's internal sea", he declared, pointing out that even Russian Tsar Peter the Great did not manage that.
So while we speculate and ponder as to who wins and who loses. It is but a simple analogy that the Ukrainians are bearing the brunt of a political decision that could have been sorted out across the table diplomatically. Russia has gained, it has also shown to the world ‘not to believe that countries that claim friendship and promulgate war, would put boots on ground and fight someone else’s war’. The NATO footprint too is far and distant now. The US is constantly being undermined. Russia has developed new friendships that formally were in the realms of suspicion with China.
As for the Ukrainians, they are battered and cold this winter. The common man is suffering. There are no military gains except counter attacks and partial victories to take back what was actually theirs in the first place. There is only one way to resolve this and that is to draw out a strategy to mitigate Russian doubts and reaffirm faith in peaceful coexistence. But I fear that Putin will negotiate from a position of strength and it won’t be surprising that Crimea and Donbas become occupied Russian territories.
Is there a lesson that we as Indians need to learn?
⁃ Can we avoid war? Keeping it within the grey zone and is it necessary to be testing thresholds from time to time?
⁃ Can we take the war to the enemy? Fight it in his terrain? Prevent own collateral.
⁃ Is there adequate infrastructure that we can sabotage or aim at, in the operational depth?
⁃ Do we even interest China in the Geo political or strategic domain? To go to war?
⁃ Are territorial disputes justification enough to go to war? Or is it war of economies?
⁃ Hasn’t India played its cards well, in the Russian - Ukraine conflict by being just? Displaying absolute intelligent diplomacy. Therefore ratifying it’s commitment to peace. Showing China that things can be settled through diplomacy.
⁃ Are we willing to fall to a Western narrative? Or just stoically maintain an Indian identity by staying responsible.
⁃ Play the IW game well, by highlighting future wars have no absolute results, in fact even amplifying that conflict is an no-brainer, without even achieving an end state.
⁃ Concentrate on capability building and long range vectors to keep war away from traditional borders.