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Russia-Ukraine war: Ten lessons for military leaders

NewsRussia-Ukraine war: Ten lessons for military leaders

Modern wars have to be short and swift to ensure tactical and strategic gains for any nation.


New Delhi: Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese military strategist remarked centuries ago “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable at night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt”.
As the Russia-Ukraine War completed three months on 24 May 2022 and is well into its fourth month with no immediate cessation of hostilities by the either side on the horizon, it is time for military leaders to introspect on the lessons accruing from this war.
1. The first lesson is the improper selection of timing for the launch of the war in Ukraine by Russia. Russia launched the offensive on Ukraine on 24 February 2022 when winter was ebbing in Eastern Europe. Thus, with snow covering the entire ground in Ukraine it was heavy with water content resulting in the ground being boggy. The Russians had no option but to restrict the movement of their troops and tanks on metalled roads.
In armoured warfare emphasis is on dispersed movement of tanks on large frontages cross country so as to maximise their effect and efficacy. However, this was not possible due to the ground conditions, hence these tanks became easy targets for the Ukrainian soldiers who are equipped with the latest US made Javelin, the British made NLAW (Next-generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon) anti-tank missiles and the Turkish TB2 Bayraktar armed drones.
Modern wars have to be short and swift to ensure tactical and strategic gains for any nation.
2. The second lesson is that the will of the people of the country where the war is being fought is of great importance. In all the three prolonged wars where the US has fought in modern times post 1945, i.e. in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the civilian population was anti-American and hence even sophisticated weaponry and the well-trained soldiers of the US military proved to be no match for the under-equipped and ill-trained soldiers of these three countries. Local support is of inherent importance.
In the Russia-Ukraine War, the Ukrainian armed forces have given a tough reply to the Russians, despite being the underdogs as the local population supported the Ukraine military in every possible way. NLAW anti-tank missiles being transported on electric two wheelers to destroy Russian tanks, is an example of the role the civil population can play when a war is ravaged on their nation.
3. The third lesson is that a war has to launched with full force and lethality. Russia despite having a complete air superiority at the commencement of the war on 24 February, with 1,511 fighter aircraft as compared to the 98 fighter aircraft of the Ukrainian Air Force, has sparingly used its combat air power. Russia should have used its fighter aircraft and artillery in full force in the initial days on important cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv. This would have completely pulverised these two cities and then the mopping up would have been done by its armoured and infantry, which would have led to Kyiv and Kharkiv falling into the hands of Russians in just a matter of days. This would have led to an early end of this war. The Indian Army captured Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in just 14 days as air and artillery power was used in full measure.
4. The fourth lesson is that all officers should read. Reading inculcates a thorough understanding on any subject, be it military, economic or political. The best military leaders in the world have been voracious readers. The Indian Army has a very fine tradition wherein any officer in a regiment going even on a day’s leave, has to gift a book on any topic to the Officers’ Mess library of the regiment on re-joining the regiment. Also, the Commanding Officers of the regiments regularly organise presentations on important topics including book reviews for the officers under their command and questioning is encouraged during and after the presentation. No wonder Indian Army officers top every course in any foreign military institution as they are well read and updated on any international or domestic issue.
5. The fifth lesson is that as a war progresses, realistic aims must be reset to ensure that the war must not go on. The fact that the Russians were not meeting their military objectives can be gauged from the fact that the Russian theatre commander in Ukraine was changed on 10 April 2022 and General Alexander Dvornikov took over as the new theatre commander. Commanders in any war are only changed under three circumstances—injury, death or being unable to meet the aims and objectives.
On 23 April the Deputy Commander of the Central Military District of Russia, General Rustam Minnekayev announced that the military aims of Russia in Ukraine were to liberate Donbas so as to be able to create a land bridge with Crimea and onward to Transnistria, a region in Moldova where the Russian peace keeping forces are already present. If this were indeed the military objectives of Russia at the onset of the war, then Russia would not have crossed the Dnieper River nor would it have removed its theatre commander in Ukraine. Clearly its military aims had been reset owing to the resistance put up by Ukraine.
6. The sixth lesson is conventional wars will always remain a reality and each nation has to be prepared for it. Even the friendliest nations can go to war with each other. Hence training in peacetime has to be of an exceptional order because when the balloon goes up, then only one thing will matter for each warring nation and that is victory. There are no runners up in a war.
7. Seventhly, in the current precarious geopolitical times, three factors go in making a nation a force to reckon with—economic power, military strength and nuclear weapons. Had Ukraine not decided to give up its nuclear weapons in 1994, Russia would not have launched a full-scale war and would have limited itself to skirmishes with Ukraine.
8. The eighth lesson is that economic bankruptcy will not prevent a nation from attacking another nation nor will it deter them from putting up a fierce resistance against the attackers. On 27 February, just three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, its President Volodymyr Zelenskyy offered to have peace talks with Russia. Within a couple of hours of this announcement European Union had an emergency meeting and released 450 million euros to Ukraine and that changed the entire complexion of the war.
Even though Pakistan is almost bankrupt but the threat of it waging a war on India will never cease as Pakistan as a nation has been created on the foundation of hatred against India and its political and military leadership survives on anti-India rhetoric. Hence India can never be complacent against Pakistan and those peaceniks who regularly call for reduction in the size of the Indian Armed Forces and the defence budget should understand the consequences India would have to pay in such eventualities.
9. The ninth lesson is that drones and UAVs will play an important role in any war or skirmish. The Russian tanks became sitting ducks for the Ukrainian soldiers who are equipped with the latest Turkish TB2 Bayraktar drones. Drones and UAVs played an important role in the Armenia-Azerbaijan War of 2020. Hence it is imperative for every nation to procure drones and UAVs for its military.
10. And finally, it is important to have a single point military advisor to the political leadership of any country and to give him full authority and power in conducting military operations. The Russians, despite having General Valery Gerasimov as Chief of General Staff was never seen giving a briefing in media after the Russia-Ukraine War started. With the vast reach of television channels and social media these days, the military commander’s presence on media motivates the troops in a warzone.
The Indian government’s decision to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) on 1 January 2020 was a step in the right direction to have a one-point military advisor.
The writer, who retired from the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army, is an alumnus of NDA, Khadakwasla and IIT Kanpur. He is an MTech in Structures and has also done MBA and LLB. He Tweets and Koos at @JassiSodhi24. The views expressed are personal.

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