The conflict in Ukraine is nearing a month of devastation, turning into a deadly kinetic, contact warfare in the hybrid domain between Russia and Ukraine, with the US-led West fighting a non-kinetic, non-contact, undeclared war in economic, information, diplomatic and political domains, simultaneously, to target Russia. What we are witnessing are over three million refugees, numerous military and civilian casualties, with short windows of intermittent reconciliatory tones, amidst rhetoric from opposing sides to continue fighting, and strategic signalling with nuclear references exchanging between Russia and the United States.
While the West led by the US continues to give standing ovations to President Zelenskyy’s emotional speeches apart from packages of military hardware and funds, it is pouring fuel into the fire by prolonging the global agony and encouraging Ukrainians to fight to the death in order to weaken Russia by escalating an economic and information warfare. While NATO can claim that Ukraine is not part of it; hence it is not obligated to join the war with Russia by imposing a “No Fly Zone—as repeatedly requested by Zelenskyy—as it has the potential to trigger a third world war or even a nuclear war, but NATO is very much a part of the conflict through instruments of non-contact warfare. Russia has drawn a red line by reminding the West of its policy of use of nuclear weapons, if faced with existential threat, signalling NATO to back off Ukraine.
NO CONCERN FOR HUMANITARIAN DISASTER
Any offensive into another sovereign country has disastrous consequences for the people and must be condemned, whether it’s current Russian offensive in Ukraine or earlier NATO invasions in Iraq and other parts of MENA. With few security guarantees, this was avoidable, but the big power contestation continues to spiral it, with display of heroics of President Zelenskyy, failing to read the extent, depth, and impact of Western support and President Putin’s determination, least realising that the nationalism and his people’s resolve is being used as an instrument to escalate an unwinnable, proxy war, leading his country to disaster. The war of the narratives seems to be getting dangerous with references to nuclear, biological and chemical dimensions in heated exchanges/allegations/counter-allegations.
AFTER A MONTH OF the WAR
After a month, the battlefield shaped by Russians seems to make strategic sense, but at a very heavy cost, which continues to increase exponentially. Russia’s main offensive is towards Kyiv, which is the centre of gravity to achieve the political objective of imposing a no-NATO diktat on its political leadership or force a regime change through the shortest route from Belarus. The complete isolation of Kyiv is yet to be achieved and the political consolidation is not in sight. Given the spirit of nationalism among Ukrainians, stoked by Zelenskyy’s sentimental appeals and bolstered by western information warfare, Russians need to moderate their political objective from regime change to imposing a No-NATO Agreement with Zelenskyy, because any pro-Russian puppet regime, even if imposed, is unlikely to survive.
The Russian military aim to demilitarise the Ukrainian military to ensure that Ukraine cannot be used as a launchpad by NATO to threaten Russia’s security, has been partially achieved by extensive air and missile strikes to neutralise air defence capability, air assets to achieve favourable air situation, pulverising military targets, claiming to have destroyed most of them, including airfields and military installations in Ukraine. Russia is increasingly capturing strategic installations to step up pressure on Zelenskyy.
The offensive from the south is aimed at cutting off Ukrainian access to Black Sea and Sea of Azov by securing a permanent land corridor from Russia to Crimea with an end-state of landlocked Ukraine. Russians have been able to achieve most of the corridor except Odessa, with intense fighting in townships like Mariupol. The offensive from the east is aimed at liberation of the complete Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where intense fighting continues despite initial gains.
Ukraine’s strong resolve to resist a Russian offensive under the leadership of President Zelenskyy, has been noteworthy, having deliberately prepared for the conflict. To overcome the asymmetry in military asset holdings, the Ukrainian force deployed smartly in densely populated areas to fight pitched battles in townships, despite losing air cover in the early phases of the conflict. The strategy is to deploy military assets in civilian areas, turn towns into fortresses, and residential areas into pillboxes, incite mercenaries and civilians to fight as part of the war machine, launch sniper attacks, ambushes, small team operations, drone attacks on softer convoys, and provoke Russians to target residential areas in order to gain propaganda advantage from civilian casualties through superior information warfare, backed by the West to demonise President Putin. With the adoption of an urban insurgency model, the war has morphed from conventional to a hybrid war with both sides planning to induct more non-state actors.
The Ukrainian strategy seems to have succeeded in delaying Russian operations and placing Russia in an awkward position of having to choose between fighting in populated, built-up areas, which is cost prohibitive in terms of human and equipment casualties in favour of defender, or besieging, bombarding townships, residential areas alleged to house military assets, disrupting essential services, and pressuring Zelenskyy, at the cost of risking international condemnation. The Russians appear to have selected the latter option, extending the range of air strikes to western Ukraine, which is the lifeline for assistance from the West including military hardware.
ARE ACTIONS BY NATO HELPING UKRAINE?
The US and its western allies are claiming to be helping Ukraine through financial and diplomatic sanctions on Russia and military hardware support to Ukraine of the type (smaller calibre) which can improve the staying power of Ukrainian fighters, and induce long term insurgency in Europe, even if negotiations reach some conclusion in due course. The aim is to permanently weaken Russia by weaponising Ukrainian nationalism, posing Zelenskyy as a hero, to continue fighting with their proxy support. EU’s support to refugees from Ukraine is the only positive humanitarian support, where UK and US seem to be shying.
As the war prolongs further, Ukraine will be destroyed physically, Russia will suffer punitive financial cost, EU will lose long lasting peace, energy security, besides getting saddled with an unsurmountable refugee load, and the entire world will suffer economically. Ukrainians and Russian residents and soldiers will bear the brunt of the consequences. While the EU is presenting a bold, united front with the US to weaken Russia, it has its limits, up to the point when its gas supply is choked, with the risk of insurgency at its doorstep.
In the short term, the US may appear to benefit from Russia’s weakness by increasing arms and oil exports, but in the long run, it will lose credibility and reliability globally. China will emerge wiser and stronger, learning from the Russian experience and assessing the risk profile of the US, whose leadership is fixated on the wrong adversary and is unable to combat the real competitor in the Indo-Pacific. Diversion of focus from China to Russia will speed up the decline of a shaky US as superpower, faster than what its strategists anticipate.
Sanctions seem to lose their lustre, as more sanctions may lead non-western countries to seek an alternative financial system that is not dependent on the West, jeopardising their long-term interests. The world is more intertwined than it was previously, and with the economic fulcrum shifting from the West to the Indo-Pacific, a de-dollarised financial system could be the most significant future risk to the US. Russian demand of payment for gas in roubles from the West is a case in point.
For European security, a neutral Ukraine is the best option. Ukraine has never been accepted into NATO and is unlikely to be welcomed in the future, as it has never met the basic criterion of a peaceful internal and exterior situation, being involved in conflicts in both dimensions. It is preferable if Ukraine and Russia accept the reality earliest and resolve the issue through direct dialogue, putting rhetoric, egos and sentiments aside. It might be a better idea for the West, too, to encourage a ceasefire through discussions, addressing the legitimate security interests of all parties, rather than adding fuel to the fire by imposing more sanctions or providing more lethal hardware to escalate the war.
Major General S.B. Asthana is an Army veteran. The views expressed are personal views of the author, who retains the copyright. The author can be reached at Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on Twitter, and at email email@example.com.