The War in Ukraine Military Aspects

Sub Title : Military aspects and lessons from the russia- Ukraine war

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2022

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 29

Category : Geostrategy

: March 31, 2022

The seeds of this war go back to 2014, when Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists in the Eastern Provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. The flashpoint of the current conflict came last year with Ukraine’s proclamation of wanting to join NATO.  As the war rages on, the article cogently delineates the background, events and in brief the prognosis thereof

At 5 am on the morning of 24 February, Russian troops debouched from their Assembly Areas along the Russian-Ukraine border and entered Ukraine along three main axes – from the North and North East, from the East and from the South. The invasion that everyone knew was coming but still hoped would never happen, had begun. War had revisited Europe after 70 years.

The preparations for it had begun months in advance. Around 120,000 troops of the 41st Combined Arms Army, had been inducted from Siberia and concentrated along the border since November. Another 30,000 troops were engaged in ‘exercises’ in Belarus -a Russian ally- from where they could enter Ukraine rapidly from the North. Russian backed separatists in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine had stepped up their attacks on Ukrainian positions, and a vicious information campaign had been launched against the Ukrainian leadership and government. Cyber-attacks and a denial-of services attacks on government and military sites disrupted finance, transport and communication services and downed the internet hours before the actual attack. In the transparent world of satellite surveillance and Google maps, the Russian concentration and move of forces had been picked up and monitored virtually on a real time basis. But though the invasion was expected, the eventual scale caught many by surprise. Russia attacked virtually all along the Ukrainian frontier in the largest offensive seen in Europe since the Second Word War.

On the face of it, it was expected that the Russian Army would sweep through Ukraine and reach all the way to Kyiv in a week or so. Ukraine was isolated, and inspite of arms shipments and moral support, no European nation, or the USA was willing to get directly involved. Yet, the Ukrainian Army, hardened by eight years of battling separatism in Donbas, put up a stiff resistance that delayed every thrust. The Russians too made a series of baffling tactical and strategic decisions which prevented them from achieving their aim swiftly. A week-long war, has now entered its fourth week and the rapier thrust the Russians hoped to strike has become a sledgehammer blow.  It is proving to be a long hard slog, which could involve the reduction of entire cities. And even if the Russians do eventually attain their aims, it could be a pyrrhic victory which could ultimately prove disastrous to Putin and Russia.

How the War Unfolded

The seeds of the war go back to 2014, when Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists in the Eastern Provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. That set off an eight yearlong insurgency there which has claimed over 14000 lives. But the flashpoint came last year with Ukraine’s decision to join NATO – something that was enshrined in its constitution. Putin’s demand that Ukraine not join the alliance and was not unreasonable (given that NATO has expanded 1000 kms eastwards since 1991, in spite of assurances that it would ‘not move one inch more’). It would have brought NATO virtually on its doorstep and enabled their missiles to strike Moscow in four minutes. Putin’s demand for written guarantees against Ukraine joining the alliance and also for NATO to move back its troops and offensive weaponry from lands adjoining Russia could obviously not be provided. And in January 22, Putin set forward the first stage of his plan by recognizing the breakaway provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states. Then on 24 February, he launched his ‘special military operation’ to ‘demilitarize Ukraine and free it from neo-Nazi leaders and criminals.’

The jury is still out as to what exactly did Putin hope to achieve by this offensive. Yes, regime change was definitely on the cards, and he hoped for a decisive military victory that would bring the government to collapse and be replaced by a more amenable one later. Also, he needed a complete victory to demonstrate the extent of Russian might – not just to Ukraine, but to the entire world. The three prongs of his offensive moved in from the South, the East and the North, to cover virtually the entire country. In the South, Russian troops moved from the Crimean Peninsula towards the port cities of Kherson, Mariupol, Melitopol and others, to seize the coastline along the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea and form a land bridge to connect Russia to Crimea. In the East, the offensive hit the towns of Sula and Kharkiv. Taken in conjunction with move forward of separatists from the breakaway regions of the Donbass region in the South East, it was perhaps designed to reach the line of the Dnieper River. This would have cut off the rich Eastern region from the rest of the country. The main objective seemed to be Kyiv for which an offensive was launched from the North, from Belarus, which advanced towards Kyiv from the North and the North East. Kyiv emerged as the focus of their offensive, which would be a symbol of their complete victory. (Much as Stalingrad was seen as a symbol by the Germans, who obsessed over this place of no strategic value with disastrous results.) In conjunction, the three thrust lines would be able to take over the capital, seize the coast; and the rich lands east of the Dnieper River and virtually carve Ukraine into three.

The Russians would have banked on a short, swift war – maybe 8-10 days or so (after all they took over Georgia in six days). Moving in Battalion Tactical Groups, (with the ubiquitous letter ‘Z’ marked on their tanks and vehicles to differentiate them from the similar equipment used by the Ukrainian army), the Russians advanced rapidly in the first two or three days and the result seemed a foregone conclusion. But surprisingly, the Russians used their Air Force sparingly. After an initial show of force on the first day of the War, air effort dwindled and only around 75 aircraft have been committed – largely Sukhoi25 ground attack aircraft. There was no determined attempt to destroy the Ukrainian Air Force and Air Defense sites, nor were concentrated air strikes made at value targets. Even after three weeks, Russia still does not have full control of the skies; and Ukrainian aircraft and drones still fly and their AD causes steady attrition on Russian aircraft.

Ukraine has complemented its meagre fleet of aircraft with drones, which they have used very effectively in the surveillance and strike roles. Locally made Specter drones and even rudimentary quad copters fitted with cameras have been used to observe Russian movement. These targets are then struck with Punishers and Turkish made Bayrakter TB2 attack drones armed with missiles and rockets. Around 1000 Switchblades – suicide drones packed with explosives – have been recently inducted which loiter for hours over the battlefield and then are guided to slam and explode on their targets.  So effective have drone attacks proved that Ukraine has now called on all local drone operators, and commissioned hand-held drones readily available off-the-shelf, to add to the war effort.

The initial Russian attacks seemed feeble and disjointed – more raids than attacks. Artillery was not used, the troops were not told of their objectives and roles (for reasons of security) and perhaps expected to be received as liberators. The scale of resistance took them initially by surprise. Most of the columns were road-bound and even the armor did not fan out into the country side as would be expected. Perhaps it was ‘Marshal Mud’ that came to play. With the advent of Spring, the melting snow turned the countryside into slush and sucked vehicles axle-deep into them. The logistics also did not seem to keep pace with the scale of advance envisaged. Russian armies are designed for road and rail move and since none of the major cities had fallen, the communication arteries were denied to them, which affected the forward movement of fuel and ammunition. While the Russian forces contacted most of their objectives, they were unable to capture any of them. It was only around the third week, that the offensive gathered momentum again and entered its most crucial phase – the battle for the cities.

The Battle for the Cities

The objectives of the offensive were the major cities along all three axes. But by being too fixated on the cities – and too many of them – they have drawn themselves into a hard slogging match.

The Russians did not use intensive air or fire power on the cities, perhaps to reduce indiscriminate casualties. Initial strikes were with precision munitions and Russia claimed to have eliminated over two thousand ‘specific military targets’ in the first two weeks of the war. But as resistance increased, more and more fire power has been brought to bear, which not only adds to the destruction, but also creates rubble which will make their capture and subsequent holding on even more difficult.

In the South, Kherson was the first major city to fall. But other coastal towns have held on in spite of intensive punishment. Mariupol, a vital port town which the Russians need to gain control the Sea of Azov and Crimea, is grimly defended by the Azov Brigade and has seen some of the heaviest fighting. Mykolaiv too, has held on in spite of heavy punishment. Russian troops and tanks have entered both the cities but have been unable to hold on in the confused street fighting (often confronted with angry civilians). Odessa, the vital sea port has been targeted with cruise missiles from warships in the Black Sea, but the amphibious operation to capture it has not materialized. But even though the ports have not fallen, the Russians control a large swath of land along the Southern coastline which now links them to Crimea.

In the East, Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second largest Ukrainian city, has also held on for three weeks, as have the smaller towns of Sumy and Okhtyrka. A complementary thrust launched from the South East seems headed for the river town of Dnipro, on the Dnieper River, whose capture will allow them to control the rich area East of the River. But the focus is now Kyiv – the capital and nerve center of resistance.

The Russians hoped to capture Kyiv with a rapid thrust from the North and North East, using troops ‘exercising’ in Belarus. One of their first actions at the onset of the war, was an airborne assault by VDV Airborne forces and Spetsnaz Special Forces on the airport of Hostomel, 25 kilometers North of Kyiv. That would have given them an air head on the very outskirts of Kyiv, from which they could build up for an attack on the town. Hostomel changed hands thrice in two days of bitter fighting, till Ukrainian forces regained control of the airport, forcing a longer land offensive. A 64-kilometer-long column of tanks and trucks advanced from the North towards Kyiv and then halted inexplicably for two or three days in the most crucial phase of the operation.

The halt of the column has been attributed to faulty logistics. Ostensibly they ran out of fuel. Russian units and formations are known to be light in load carrying trucks and can cater for an advance of just around 90 kilometers, before being replenished by follow on supply units and pipelines. But in all probability, the column had halted while it waited for the thrust line from the North East to move forward, for a coordinated attack on the town. Whatever the reason, the crucial delay allowed the defenders to develop obstacles and defense lines, call up their reservists and resistance militia; and prepare for the assault.

When the column resumed its move, it fanned out as it approached Kyiv, isolating it from the West. It is now within 20 kilometers of the town and the suburbs of Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel have been captured. The other thrust line has also approached from the Northeast and has isolated it from East of the Dnieper River. Artillery has been built up and troops deployed for the attack. Should they go in for the assault, they could use their massed artillery to reduce Kyiv in much the same way that Grozny was in 1991, before sending in troops and tanks for the actual capture and occupation.  Chechen and Syrian fighter, known for their brutality have also been inducted around the towns to terrify defenders in to submission.

But the capture of Kyiv will not be an easy proposition. The town is bisected by the Dnieper River which cuts the town in two. Its streets and high buildings provide excellent ambush sites. And its warren of underground metro tunnels enables the defender to move unseen. Perhaps Putin can achieve his military goals even without the capture of Kyiv, but the city has now become a symbol.  Even if the Ukrainians merely hold on, it will be seen as a victory for them and a personal defeat for Putin. And even if Kyiv falls, it will be difficult to hold and could prove exorbitantly expensive.

Russia has also expanded the scope of operations towards Western Ukraine, by targeting Lviv, a small town just 19 kilometers from the Polish border which is the base for Western arms to be sent into Ukraine. For the first time, hypersonic missiles were used to target and destroy warehouses and stockpiles of equipment, in a direct warning to Poland and the Western nations. The not too subtle warnings that “World War III will be a nuclear War” is also a reminder that should Western powers intervene directly, they could escalate the conflict dramatically.

How will it Pan out?

After three weeks of war, in spite of the greater than expected delays, the Russian army is in a position to attain most of its major goals. They now hold the coast line along the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, which gives them land access to Crimea, and also denies Ukraine access to the sea. They have also invested Kharkiv and most of the major cities very effectively. But to capture them, they will have to intensify the scale of operations and bring in even greater firepower, cause even more destruction, and cost even more in terms of lives and resources.

All eyes are now fixed on Kyiv. The Russians have followed the time-honored siege tactics of surrounding a city with overwhelming force and then threaten surrender or destruction of their capital city. Should a peace deal be struck, it could prevent the city fighting and destruction that it entails. But should the battle go into Kyiv, the overwhelming force which the Russians have brought against it, will eventually force it to submission – but at huge cost. The longer it holds the greater will be the world pressure on Russia. And even if it does fall, it would only be a symbol of victory and serve no tangible military gain.

One can’t but compare this with the Indian campaign to liberate Bangladesh in 1971. Travelling almost the same distance, the Indians simply bypassed the cities and centers of resistance and moved towards Dacca – the nerve center – and forced a surrender in just 13 days. The Russians could have done well to emulate that instead of sledgehammering their way across the cities.

After the conflict termination, it is unlikely that Russia will continue to occupy Ukraine. Holding a nation that is larger than France, with pockets of angry units and fighters inflicting steady attrition, could bleed them heavily. But yes, they will extract constitutional guarantees of Ukraine never joining NATO, go in for regime change, and force the acceptance of the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. (which could be later amalgamated in to Russia). Perhaps they could hold on to the coastal areas they have captured in the South all the way to Crimea. That would give them stranglehold over Ukraine’s access to the sea.

But the swift war which Putin had hoped for has not happened, and the longer the war extends the greater will be the opposition in the World and inside Russia itself. Russia has already lost the Information War, and with it the battle of Perception. The effects of sanctions will bite as inflation, loss of jobs, shortages and economic hardships hit the ordinary Russians. Internal dissension could rise, perhaps threatening Putin’s position itself. Putin had launched the war hoping to assert Russia’s might and regain the prestige of the former USSR. But this invasion could well start the decline of Russia in much the same way that the invasion of Afghanistan precipitated the decline of the USSR.

Stop Press

As we go to press, the War shows no signs of abating and the peace talks have failed. Russian attacks on the cities of Kyiv, Mariupol, Kharkiv and others have intensified, but not a single city has fallen and Ukrainian forces have also successfully counterattacked Russian positions – a sign that perhaps the Russian offensive has reached culmination point.

The Russians have now shifted their objectives to the ‘liberation’ of the Donbas Region. Should Russia decide to cut off the Donbas region with the help of pro-Russian separatists, it could trap the bulk of the Ukrainian Army there. That could give the victory Putin requires for conflict termination. But for now, the war seems to have reached a dangerous stalemate.